Jim Sullivan, Globe Staff
Meet the new Pete, not quite the same as the old Pete.
Then again, he never is, is he? The reinvention of Pete Townshend - confessional, self-critical, 53-year-old guiding light-guitarist-singer of the band that was the Who - continues, and the reconfiguration of his songs (both solo and Who) progresses in concert. And this is good. I almost hate to write this, but after absorbing Townshend's 2 1/2-hour set at Harborlights along with a full house of 4,500, I've got to say: I understand why he does what he does and why he's not eager to put the old warhorse called the Who back together again. This rock 'n' roll - hard-edged but warm, loose but coiled - is the kind of adult rock no one could have conceived of back in 1965, when the Who took on the elders with »My Generation.«
The key point last night: Townshend is making the old new again. He gave a lot of bang for the big ($45) buck. »Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,« the old aggro youth anthem, started in a contemplative jam-band-mode and then mutated into a power-chord bliss fest. Same with Townshend's favorite cover song, the English Beat's »Save It for Later« - a snooze when he's done it solo acoustic, but a heated, dynamic rocker here. The piece de resistance was »The Kids Are Alright,« where Townshend (the ex-punk) shifted the context of »the kids.« It used to be him and his gang, cocky, proud. Now, it's his and his peers' kids - »nothing wrong with my kids, nothing wrong with your kids,« he said, while the band vamped. It wasn't hokey.
The implication of the Who has always been that the glory of rock 'n' roll can shine through - for a moment, at least - and transcendence might happen. It happened last night with this band - not the old boys' club of the Who, but very much featuring females, guitarist-singer Tracy Langran (who helped choreograph »Tommy« on Broadway) and percussionist Jody Linscott, a Boston area native. From the stage, Townshend said, »You can see how I feel about drummers, I won't have anything to do with them anymore« - he employed a drum machine and a live bassist. This show had a backbeat and a backbone. It also, intermittently, gave us a glimpse of Back Porch Pete, just a few geezers and gals up there a-pickin' and a-grinnin', folks who'd be sucking on straw if they could.
Keyboardist-singer John Carin was the band's anchor. Harmonica player/jew's-harpist Peter Hope-Evans was its spice. (He handled the quivering synth part on »Won't Get Fooled Again.«) Townshend clearly enjoyed playing off Langran. They dueted on »The Acid Queen,« prior to which Townshend announced he and she were »both queens!« (Townshend is out about his bisexuality, among many other things.)
The show included old faves (»You Better, You Bet,« »Drowned«), rarities (»A Little Is Enough,« »North Country Girl«), and oddball choices. Townshend opened with Canned Heat's »On the Road Again« and later played »Going Up the Country.« These were meant, one assumes, to conjure up the Woodstock Festival of 1969. Townshend is playing Woodstock again today and hopes, in part, to atone for his misbehavior a long time ago, when he figuratively peed on the peace-and-love parade and literally whacked activist Abbie Hoffman off the stage.
Last night, Townshend had fun with his sonic reinventions, jesting, to the crowd, »You go, `Oh, what's he done to this song, ma?' I go, `They're paying me loads of money to annoy them.' ... If you think I'm annoying now, think what I could do?« This was just after a lounge-y reprise of »The Real Me,« just prior to a mock-operatic Wagnerian/Zarathustra bit. We left to meet deadline as »Won't Get Fooled Again« began to take shape, but were told by knowledgeable sources that guitar strings were broken, Townshend left the stage, came back, had more technical trouble during an instrumental, played »Magic Bus« and then was joined by a 22-member black choir for the »See Me, Feel Me« finale, which Townshed called »a prayer.«