Pete Townshend brought two guests onstage during his performance at House of Blues Saturday night.
The first one was a priest. The second was Eddie Vedder.
Townshend presented Rev. John Smythe, executive director of Maryville Academy, with an oversize check representing the $220,000 his sold-out concert raised for the Des Plaines-based organization that houses abused, neglected and abandoned Chicago-area children at 17 campuses.
"This is your money, folks," Townshend teased the audience before giving buyers of the high-priced tickets their money's worth, playing 30 songs over nearly three hours.
As an added plus, Evanston native Vedder joined Townshend for a rendition of "Heart to Hold Onto," in tribute to recently deceased Faces' bass player Ronnie Lane, with whom Townshend originally recorded the song. Pearl Jam's front man took the choruses in his warbling baritone while The Who's leader cooed verses in a bright tenor.
On a lighter note, the pair then sang "Tattoo," an early The Who song that Townshend, fresh from witnessing the Bulls' championship victory a night earlier, described as being about "what makes you a man if you can't play basketball."
Whether shaking hands with a man of the cloth or extolling the virtues of body ink, Townshend was never far from the search for identity and spiritual transcendence that have been his themes for more than three decades.
Those concerns emerged repeatedly throughout his career-spanning set in "I'm a Boy," "Sensation," "I am an Animal" and the snippet of "The Seeker" Townshend incorporated into "Bargain."
Townshend's lofty aspirations, though, were precisely why he's poorly suited for stripped-down performances. Having long ago abandoned simple pop songs for complex narratives and near-orchestral grandeur, Townshend needs The Who's dramatic embellishments to match philosophical inquiry with visceral might.
With only keyboardist Jon Carin to provide accompaniment, songs like "Drowned," "Quadrophenia" and even the mighty "Behind Blue Eyes" sagged under their own weight. His elaborate compositions proved even too much for Townshend, who fumbled "The Sea Refuses No River" despite the pages of sheet music spread before him on his electric piano.
In contrast, Townshend was at his best on The Who's simplest, earliest material. His sweet vocals and surging guitar highlighted the optimistic beauty of "The Kids Are Alright," and he replaced Roger Daltrey's stuttering with Muddy Waters phrasing on a bluesy rendition of "My Generation," capping it off with a blistering solo.
With Vedder rejoining him for the finale, Townshend rode the snarling Bo Diddley groove of "Magic Bus," ending the song with a windmill guitar strum that spoke volumes all on its own.