Bradley Bambarger, Star-Ledger Staff
NEW YORK -- If the young Pete Townshend could have looked into a crystal ball to see himself performing on the Madison Square Garden stage three days after his 59th birthday, he would've been left slack-jawed with shock.
Townshend not only avoided dying before he got old (counter to his youthful sentiments and unlike so many of his peers, either in body or soul). As an electric guitarist, he has recovered enough primal virtuosity to rival his prime self -- and far surpass the ambivalent, hearing-impaired performer of the late
'80s and '90s. On Saturday, he was as ferocious as any young lion.
Moreover, Townshend the songwriter has shown that his grace, guts and gray matter remain intact, with this tour airing the first new songs he has written for the Who in more than 20 years.
The original Who are down to two, after the sudden passing of bassist John Entwistle just before the band's 2002 tour. (Drummer Keith Moon died in 1978.) As on that tour, Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey are backed up by keyboardist "Rabbit" Bundrick, bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr's son, who has now logged more time in the seat than Kenny Jones, Moon's initial replacement). A secret weapon was rhythm guitarist/backing vocalist Simon Townshend (Pete's brother), whose shadow screams covered Daltrey whenever his graying voice frayed.
While providing fine low-end support, Palladino couldn't hope to re-create the full-frequency jet-engine roar of the peerless Entwistle. But perhaps feeling freed, yet again, from a past ideal of "the Who," Townshend filled the sonic hole to overflowing with his live-wire solos. Since taking up the electric guitar again, he has developed a stinging, shimmying new sound, playing a Fender Stratocaster (with whammy bar) rather than the Gibson Les Paul of the '70s. The old dog who invented the power chord has learned some new six-string tricks, incredibly energized and amazingly articulated.
The Who took the stage with a storming trio of '60s singles. Against all odds, "I Can't Explain" sounded as manic in 2004 as it did nearly 40 years ago when it was the band's first hit. If forced to skirt the high notes of "Substitute," the fit-looking Daltrey persuasively re-voiced the nervy testosterone anthem "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" as an aging man's statement of defiance.
Particularly effective among the 21-song set list was "Who Are You," with the metallic salvos devastating and Daltrey in virile form. Among the left-field inclusions, a riveting take on "The Punk and the Godfather" and an acoustic "Drowned" were the highlights of a "Quadrophenia" sequence.
Choosing New York to debut a number in their new "Everly Brothers format," Townshend and Daltrey played the '70s fan favorite "Naked Eye" with each on acoustic guitars. Although the rush of electricity was missed in this of all songs, the duo's performance had a loose, work-in-progress charm.
Appearing on yet another Who hits anthology, Townshend's new song "Real Good Looking Boy" deals with adolescent pains that echo through adulthood, with late resolution. Emotionally acute and sonically rich, the song evokes the past while being texturally fresh. Live, Townshend's harmonies weren't as piquant as they are on the recording, but the band did justice to a subtle, touching, living piece of rock music.
Daltrey can still sing and swing a microphone, and Townshend's windmill strumming still excites. But it's the promise of "Real Good Looking Boy" and "Old Red Wine" -- the latter a moving tough-love tribute to Entwistle, sadly truncated on Saturday as part of a medley -- that provides a viable, valuable route ahead for the Who beyond being an oldies act, however state-of-the-art.