WHAT does it take to finish off a rock'n'roll band these days? Not even the death of half the group prevented The Who from stepping back into the ring on Monday for their first show in England since the demise of the bass player John Entwistle two years ago. Age does not seem to bother them much; it is 39 years since their first hit, and singer Roger Daltrey turned 60 this month. Nor has infirmity stopped them in their tracks the guitarist Pete Townshend, 58, is so deaf he cannot hear a telephone ring at three paces. Other troubles have been similarly brushed aside turned to their advantage even.Townshend's reputation was not exactly enhanced when he received a caution after he admitted paying for child porn by credit card, but the trauma seems to have provided him with new creative life.
Finding himself with extra time on his hands when the police confiscated his computer, he returned to songwriting, and has apparently composed enough material for The Who to be planning an album. Next year may see the release of their first collection of new songs since It's Hard in 1982.
Unlike previous Who reunions, which have been strictly one-off, their return at the Forum this week marks the start of a full 18-month schedule of touring and recording. The level of commitment seemed to have been ramped up accordingly, and as they started with a lean, powerful version of Who Are You they sounded like a band that has rediscovered its sense of purpose.
With Entwistle replaced by the session bass player Pino Palladino, and Zak Starkey continuing to inhabit the drum stool left vacant by the late Keith Moon, the line-up was completed by the group's longstanding, semi-detached keyboard player John Bundrick and Townshend's younger brother Simon on rhythm guitar. But it was Townshend Sr whirling his arm in that familiar windmilling motion, and Daltrey twirling his mike like a cowboy lassooing a steer, who dominated as they reeled off a string of hits from their 1960s heyday including I Can't Explain, Substitute and Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere.
With Entwistle gone, the chemistry between these two old stagers has changed, and while there was little eye contact, it was noticeable how close they stayed together onstage. But the new blood played its part in reinvigorating a set which was comprised mostly of old favourites. Starkey negotiated the twists and mountainous crescendoes that Townshend's songwriting demands with surefooted grace, particularly on Baba O'Riley. Daltrey forgot the words to Love Reign O'er Me. "It's one of those moments that comes with the bus pass," he joked. But the performances of Behind Blue Eyes, 5.15 and You Better, You Bet were tidy, economical and all the more dramatic for the avoidance of too many barnstorming heroics.
After so many years of winging it for the odd big occasion, they seemed determined to get it right at last. And yes, they played The Kids Are Alright.
The Who play the Forum tonight and tomorrow, and the Albert Hall on Monday.