The Who are now effectively a duo, but for one song Monday at the sold-out United Center, they were down to a single guitarist.
Roger Daltrey exited the stage when his voice momentarily gave out, and it was up to Pete Townshend to carry the load. He overcompensated, and uncaged one of the finest performances I've seen at a Who concert in decades.
"My Generation" became not a nostalgia anthem that looked back to 1965, but something that spoke to who Townshend and his audience are now. The 61-year-old elder statesman turned the now infamous line, "Hope I die before I get old," into a howl of dissent. "I can't die ... We can't die ... There are too many of us!"
Townshend's guitar strafed Zak Starkey's drumbeat with shuddering sustains and staccato runs, then landed one final, crashing windmill chord. "This ... is ... my ... generation, baby!" he exulted.
It was Townshend tipping his mighty ax to Dylan Thomas: "My Generation" transformed into "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night," and its exhortation to "rage, rage against the dying of the light."
The guitarist remains one of rock's most complex and contradictory figures. Always one of its most enlightened forward thinkers, he has presided over a nostalgia act for the last two decades, one performing competent versions of decades-old hits for ticket prices ranging upward of $200.
But Monday's show was different. For the first time in 24 years, the Who have an album's worth of new material to dig into. The new material effectively recasts the band as a duo, just as much influenced by the country leanings of the Everly Brothers as the blood-and-thunder proto-metal of the '60s and '70s Who. It's a wise transformation, one enforced by tragic circumstances: the deaths of drummer Keith Moon in 1978 and bassist John Entwistle in 2002.
Still, the crowd at the United Center was primed for the vintage hits. The Who opened with a handful of Mod-era classics, bashed out solid but hardly revelatory versions of '70s arena stompers "Behind Blue Eyes," "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Who Are You," and closed with a suite of songs from "Tommy." The four-piece backing band was solid as usual, though Starkey and bassist Pino Palladino simply couldn't push Townshend and Daltrey as hard as Moon and Entwistle once did.
The barrel-chested Daltrey looked bricklayer tough, even in his blue-tinted granny glasses, but his raspy voice came and went all night, prompting his premature exit before "My Generation" (he returned for a lengthy encore). Townshend, however, was in excellent form; his "Eminence Front" provided a lacerating highlight, and his high harmonies and scorched-earth guitar-playing roared with conviction.
The newer songs were worked in almost apologetically. That's too bad, because the "Wire & Glass" mini-opera contains Townshend's best work in decades. The band rushed through a truncated version of the 10-song suite, even though songs such as the regret-filled "They Made My Dreams Come True" and the tongue-in-cheek "We Got a Hit" deserved better.
One of the new album's most heartwarming developments is that Townshend and Daltrey have found a new chemistry as an acoustic duo, and their moments together provided Monday's most memorable images.
Daltrey's finest moment was not the perfunctory scream in "Won't Get Fooled Again," but his caustic reading of one of Townshend's finest new songs, "A Man in a Purple Dress," which mocks pomposity and hypocrisy in institutionalized religion.
Then for a final encore, the two didn't increase the volume, but instead offered a somber coda, "Tea & Theatre." It wasn't the Who as we once knew them. But it was the Who embracing who they are now, and that's something to celebrate.