Richard Cromelin, Times Staff Writer
The last time the Who played the Hollywood Bowl, in 2002, the band had no problem generating urgency. It was the first show after the death of bassist John Entwistle just four days earlier, and the emotion of the occasion lent the performance a sense of drama that had been long missing in the classic English band's periodic returns to the road.
Returning to the Bowl on Saturday, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey demonstrated a less painful way to rescue the Who from the grip of routine nostalgia: Play some songs from a new album.
Seems simple, but the recently released "Endless Wire" is the first one they've managed to knock out in 24 years. And although it's inspiring to see this '60s-era band doing something new, the process underscores a dilemma facing "classic-rock" artists: What's good for the creative soul might not be what the concert fans care about.
Saturday's show summarized the struggle. Instead of a jukebox churning out old favorites, the Who was an active force probing for ways to fit its new expressions into its imposing body of work. But most of the audience received the new material politely at best, saving its cheers for the songs that they grew up with.
Not that "Black Widow's Eyes" is "Won't Get Fooled Again." One reason it's not is that the Who is no longer a group "of the moment," a voice of prophecy and insight for a mass audience. In a way, they've gone back to being the cult band they were in the U.S. before "Tommy," and on Saturday it seemed there was a core of devotees attentive to the new songs lodged among the more nostalgic fans.
"Black Widow's Eyes," a description of an unlikely emotional spark between a hostage and a female terrorist with her hand on a bomb, is actually a powerful song, one that's more politically and emotionally provocative than some of those old favorites.
But it doesn't come with all the associations and memories that make the vintage material resonate with the fans, and the song didn't get much of a response Saturday.
"Man in a Purple Dress" seemed to command more attention, maybe because it was a stripped-down arrangement, with Townshend playing folkie acoustic guitar as Daltrey voiced disdain for religious figures who dress up and pass judgment on others.
The 62-year-old Daltrey was a pleasant surprise throughout the evening. His singing is problematic at times on the new album, but he held up well in the night air, with enough left for the mighty scream in "Won't Get Fooled Again."
But on this tour leg's opening night, guitarist Townshend and the other four instrumentalists didn't mount the most powerful and dynamic playing ever delivered under the Who banner.
The mix of new Who and classic Who might have been inevitably uneasy, and the band could have followed the Rolling Stones' example and minimized the momentum-interruptions of new songs.
But there are demands other than crowd-pleasing in the artist's heart, and it's good to see Townshend heed them.