NEW YORK - If the Jackson Family fiasco in Las Vegas was muddled by irrelevant guests and an inability to stay focused on who was being honored, it was clear from the outset of »Daltrey Sings Townshend« Wednesday night that the vocalist was there strictly for his own benefit.
Faced with Pete Townshend's refusal to reunite The Who and Daltrey's exclusion from the rebirth of »Tommy,« the vigorous and trim singer used the occasion of his 50th birthday to mount his own post-rock interpretation of Townshend's work, complete with a full-fledged Juilliard orchestra and ace electric musicians, in a classy upscale setting, Carnegie Hall. (The concert will be available for TV viewers tonight who are willing to pay $24.95 or thereabouts. Call you local cable system for details.)
Despite the pretext of paying homage to the songwriter responsible for his rock 'n' roll career (a debt he openly acknowledged), Daltrey didn't press the point, leaving Townshend's name out of it until late in the three-hour show, when he finally brought the honoree onstage. With 28 Townshend tunes providing the evening's music, it was impossible to discern the line between celebration and exploitation.
Early on, Daltrey's choice of material for himself (roughly half the set) included two surprises, delicate songs that actually benefited from the vast instrumental array: »Imagine a Man« (from »Who by Numbers«) was lovely and enriched by the texture of strings, while the gentle »Song Is Over« (from »Who's Next«) used brass to punch up the song's stirring bridge. Also before intermission, Alice Cooper had brash fun with »I'm a Boy« and Lou Reed contributed a languorous jazz reading of »Now and Then« from Townshend's recent »PsychoDerelict.«
Otherwise, the first segment was awful: an obnoxious Townshend-lite orchestral overture, Daltrey's slow lounge-jazz version of »I Can See for Miles,« an over-arranged »You Better You Bet« that revealed the hoarseness of his upper register and »Love, Reign O'er Me« reconfigured as a drippy French film score.
The hapless renditions of »I Can't Explain« and »Substitute« by the Spin Doctors were an embarrassment. Turning »Dr. Jimmy« (from »Quadrophenia«) into a car wreck of missed notes, Linda Perry--the 4 Non Blondes singer whom Daltrey compared with a straight face to Janis Joplin--sounded like a contestant in an Ann Wilson scream-off.
But the show's second half got off to a riveting, inspiring start with Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. Appearing alone onstage with just an electric guitar, he brought obvious familiarity and care to stripped-down but letter-perfect renditions of »The Kids Are Alright,« »Sheraton Gibson« (with excellent finger picking) and »My Generation,« done in late-'70s Who style, first as a slow blues and then a strong rocker. If any real tribute was going to be paid Wednesday, Vedder wrote the biggest check.
Undaunted by the moronic boos that greeted her, Sinead O'Connor joined Daltrey and the Chieftains (with whom Daltrey has previously appeared) for a Gaelic variation on »Baba O'Riley,« blending her precise and declamatory delivery with his slurry rock roar.
Given Townshend's recent reclamation of his rock opera, Daltrey was unwise to delve deeply into »Tommy.«