What's this? A flash of inspiration?
From the Who? The 32-year-old band's short "Quadrophenia" tour, like its 1989 reunion hype extravaganza, is three old rockers and 12 of the best touring musicians money can buy. But unlike 1989 - and certainly unlike the listless 1982 "farewell" tour - singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist Pete Townshend and bassist John Entwistle decided to make "Quadrophenia" count.
As unlikely as it may sound, their best hire was Zak Starkey, Ringo Starr's son, on drums. He mimicked the late Keith Moon perfectly, wearing all white and recreating the chaotic explosions that hold "Quadrophenia" together. His presence alone energized the surviving trio.
The other good choice was "Quadrophenia," which the band played end-to-end for two hours Friday night at Chicago's sold-out United Center. It holds up after two decades infinitely better than the impossible-to-kill "Tommy," the Who's first rock opera, which is still running as a musical around the country. "Quadrophenia," a tale of mods battling rockers in 1950s England, was about rock nostalgia when it came out in 1973. So it works better than, say, singing, "Hope I die before I get old."
Because of persistent hearing problems, Townshend predominantly played rhythm on an acoustic guitar. Entwistle, as usual, didn't move anything but his fingers. So from the first lines of "The Real Me," Daltrey was the show's driving force and most energetic personality. Despite the firepower of a 12-piece backing band, with five horns and Townshend's brother, Simon, on electric guitar, Daltrey's voice and microphone-swinging aerobics were the consistent focal point.
His growl enlivened the anthems, such as the punk-like "Helpless Dancer," "Dr. Jimmy," the R&B train song "5:15" and the reflective, romantic finale, Love, Reign O'er Me." He even ad-libbed the f-word four or five times, possibly to prove the Who meant what they sang and weren't a bunch of geezers trying to make money. Townshend, wearing a conventional black suit and surrendering all his famous solos to his brother, at first seemed relegated to an irrelevant role.
But on "I'm One," a great Who song about a loser trying desperately to hang on to his self-esteem, Townshend sang with more soul than he ever managed on the Who's recordings. On his solo version of "Drowned," like the one on the live "Secret Policeman's Ball" album, he strummed fast chords more for nuance than for power.
The recurring musical themes of "Quadrophenia," such as the violins that open "Love, Reign O'er Me," are much more inventive than the irritating repetitive guitar bits in "Tommy." And its focus on nostalgia works perfectly for a crowd nostalgic for the Who - the show, like the original album, weaves musical bits from "Tommy," "My Generation" and the band's first single "I'm the Face" into the storyline. The Who's encore - unplugged arrangements of the crowd-pleasing classics "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Who Are You" - wasn't nearly as interesting as the preceding rock opera. "Won't Get Fooled Again" suffered without Daltrey's classic scream and the closing line "meet the new boss, same as the old boss." The Who haven't cared much about revolution in two decades, but it's a relief to see they still care about more than money.