Jonathan Perry, Globe Correspondent
With the Who – that most epic of bands – even small moments can seem majestic. In a strong two-hour show at TD Banknorth Garden last night that picked up momentum as it progressed, some of the group’s most meditative, introspective passages were also some of its best.
The sense of elegant calm that resided inside “Amazing Journey” and “Getting in Tune,” for instance, was striking. “Sea and Sand,” a questing half-ballad, half-rocker about family dysfunction, was a potent reminder that for all its legendary Sturm and Drang, the Who were and are a frequently vulnerable band: guitarist-songwriter Pete Townshend’s sensitive artistic soul wrapped inside surly singer Roger Daltrey’s gruff, tough (but since softened) exterior.
The Who is down to two – officially, anyway. The deaths of original drummer Keith Moon in 1978 and bassist John Entwistle in 2002 have cost them dearly. But just as they demonstrated here two years ago, Daltrey and Townshend are still capable of delivering a boom and a bang bigger than themselves.
It was always about the live spectacle with the Who, and so it was before a near-capacity crowd of 12,000 last night. They’re far less staggering a storm now – more a collective of professional companions, capably delivering a catalog as deep and wide (to paraphrase a lyric from one of the Who’s anthems) as the band itself once was. But occasionally – when they brilliantly lit out for the territories of “Sparks,” for instance – you got a glimpse of the Who as fearsome force of nature.
Backed by Townshend’s younger brother, Simon, on second guitar, bassist Pino Palladino, keyboard player John “Rabbit” Bundrick, and drummer Zak Starkey, the band opened with a clutch of early classics: the confusion-as-bliss salvo “I Can’t Explain”; a nonchalant version of “The Seeker”; and the Mod anthem “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere.”
There were fewer tunes from the Who’s perfectly fine 2006 album, “Endless Wire” – only “Fragments” and the tender encore-closer, “Tea & Theatre” made an appearance. But that, thankfully, meant more selections from 1973's classic “Quadrophenia” album: “Sea and Sand” soared; “5:15" roared; and “Love Reign O’er Me” was an Olympian elegy built on power chords and yearning.
Now 64, Daltrey, as always, had nowhere to hide when singing his partner’s towering melodies and sky-high choruses. Although he began somewhat sluggishly, reaching for the high notes of his youth, his grizzled voice further burred by the decades, Daltrey grew improbably stronger with each declaration. By the time “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” rolled around, he had hit his stride.
Speaking of youth, Townshend turned the brazen impudence of "My Generation" back on itself and himself. “Hey kid,” the 63-year-old guitarist ad-libbed with a smile, “I think I’m far too old for you.” Despite the song’s infamously stated desire to “die before I get old,” the far trickier and tougher task -- as the Who have discovered -- was finding a way to survive and connect. On this night, they met the challenge.