George Varga, Pop Music Critic
Can rock 'n' roll grow old gracefully, without becoming a musical contradiction or losing its vitality?
Pete Townshend has wrestled with this existential conundrum for several decades. Now 56, the legendary leader of The Who is one of the few prominent rockers of his generation willing and able to face such a challenge head on, let alone emerge triumphant.
He demonstrated as much with his Friday night benefit concert at the La Jolla Playhouse, a wonderfully intimate solo performance that was repeated for a second sold-out audience Saturday at the same venue. (The two shows raised at least $360,000 for the theater, which in 1992 debuted "The Who's 'Tommy'," a musical adaptation of the band's fabled 1969 rock-opera, which moved to Broadway, won five Tony Awards in 1993 and earned millions.)
He also demonstrated that the aging of rock, a perpetually youthful music, need not come with lowered expectations, even if it might come with lowered volume.
"I'm going to be really quiet," Townshend warned the boisterous crowd of 550, which included fans who'd flown in from as far as Australia and Japan. Then, after a perfectly timed pause, he added: "To start with."
His 102-minute performance found him alternating between acoustic guitars and a grand piano, which at times electronically triggered gently swelling orchestral accents. Exuding a warmth and charm more common to living rooms than rock concerts, he mixed stripped-down versions of such Who gems as "Behind Blue Eyes," "Cut My Hair," "Eminence Front," "I'm One" and the show-opening "Pinball Wizard" with such choice Townshend solo album cuts as "Slit Skirts," "Let My Love Open the Door" and the Dylanesque country-blues of "Sheraton Gibson."
He also included the tender ballad "Heart To Hang On To," from "Rough Mix," his 1977 album with now-deceased Small Faces' bassist Ronnie Lane. And he paid heartfelt tribute to blues great John Lee Hooker, who died Thursday, by performing a spare, Mose Allison-styled rendition of the vintage Cab Calloway hit, "St. James Infirmary."
It wasn't until the encore of "Won't Get Fooled Again," The Who's epic, 1971 anthem of youthful idealism and alienation, that Townshend strapped on an electric guitar, pumped up the volume and executed his patented windmill-like arm motions, to giddy cheers. Replete with stuttering, whammy-bar accents and blistering lead work, the rousing encore contrasted nicely with the acoustic version of "Fooled" performed just three songs earlier.
The latter reading evoked the charged attack of the still-potent Who, which played the same song at its reunion gig here last August at the Sports Arena. Conversely, Friday's acoustic version of "Fooled" was more gentle and nuanced, as were most of the dozen songs that preceded it.
Townshend's yearning tenor voice was strained at first, and he had a few false starts. But once he warmed up, he sang with soulful fervor, even while struggling to negotiate the intricate turns of "The Sea Refuses No River" from his 1982 album, "All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes." And his musical eloquence was matched by his colorful remarks, which were witty, insightful and wonderfully self-deprecating.
He spoke warmly of Who bassist John Entwistle (who, coincidentally, performed here Friday night at Humphrey's), and of Who singer Roger Daltrey. After fondly referring to the capacity audience -- which paid from $100 to $1000 per seat -- as "suckers," Townshend quipped that "Let My Love Open the Door," his next selection, was "a happy-go-lucky love song, which I write millions of."
He performed 15 songs Friday, not millions. But it was a treat to hear them delivered so passionately, and up close and personal, by one of rock's most vital and, yes, graceful elder statesmen.