Maureen Ryan, Tribune Staff Writer
He looked like a man who should be buying an ice cream cone for a grandchild, not like one of the founding fathers of rock. Ambling on stage in sandals and an untucked shirt at the House of Blues on Sunday night, Pete Townshend looked like a man on vacation, and in a way he was.
His gig was a bit of a busman's holiday, carrying none of the baggage of an arena rock show by the Who. This was Pete
Townshend playing music for fun, for kicks, and not for profit -the evening's proceeds went to Maryville Academy, a charity that benefits children.
That seems appropriate somehow, since many of Townshend's best songs, especially the early ones, throb with the angst of adolescence. Fueled by Townshend's distinctive guitar-strumming style - a clean, crisp, unmistakable stroke that gives every melodic hook an extra little spike of pleasure - and softened by the yearning of Townshend's honeyed voice, albums like "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia" are literal soundtracks to youthful resentment and rage.
It's hard to hear "Pinball Wizard," even the acoustic version Townshend performed Sunday night, and not think of a rebellious teen with a scowl on his face and a chip on his shoulder. The stinging "You Better You Bet," which Townshend bit into early in his set, is a portrait of that angry youth in middle age, struggling with self-hatred and a growing sense of futility.
But Townshend himself appears to have mostly outgrown those turbulent emotions, though his playing was anything but complacent. "Pinball Wizard" was a rolling, quivering ball of liquid mercury in Townshend's masterful hands; "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" was a percolating dance party driven by a drum machine and punctuated with Townshend's dead-on impersonation of Who singer Roger Daltrey's bombastic singing style; and the choruses of "Behind Blue Eyes" were sung softly, confessionally, but the verses were more often spat out.
The centerpiece of the set, however, wasn't even one of Townshend's songs, though he made it his own. As percussionist Jody Linscott picked out a metallic pattern on a small wooden instrument and Chucho Merchan created a rock-steady bass foundation, the band made the English Beat's "Save It For Later" into a joyful, epic jam. Peter Hope-Evans, as he did on most songs, embroidered the ruminative, tropical-flavored ska standard with gorgeous harmonica accents, and Townshend's dusky voice found him examining the same self-doubts that threaded through almost every song he sang that night. "I don't know how I'm meant to act with all of you lot," go the questioning lyrics. But Uncle Pete had an answer.
"Shut up and kiss me, and save all the rest for later," he advised with a grin as the warm musical tapestry flowed over him. Townshend may have aged a little, but all things considered, the kid seems quite all right.