At the end of a four-song encore from their iconic album "Tommy," Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey stood alone on stage, arms slung over each other's shoulders, and thanked their fans with a sincerity you don't always sense in your rock 'n' roll legends.
The last surviving members of the Who, they seemed genuinely touched by the wild enthusiasm of the capacity crowd on Saturday, the first of two shows at the Nokia Theatre and their smallest local shows in years.
But beneath there was almost a wistfulness – a sense that one of these days, they'll wake up and have actually played a farewell tour without having realized it, so savor these moments as they come. That's no doubt a sentiment most of the 7,000 fans on hand equally shared from the gray-haired guy punching the air with his fist at his umpteenth Who show to the 10-year-old in a Union Jack T-shirt playing air guitar licks and singing along with his dad. And on a night where they played mostly Who hits, there was plenty to love and appreciate.
The crunchy guitar riffs of "I Can't Explain," the Who's debut single, kicked off the night as video clips of the original band – including the late bassist John Entwistle and the even later drummer Keith Moon – played behind him. It was a genuine crowd-pleaser, as was "The Seeker," which followed, but there was a little bit of a sense that the band was still getting settled in, with Daltrey acknowledging as much after "Fragments," one of just two songs played off their most recent album, "Endless Wire."
And there is that risk with rock legends – the possibility that despite their best efforts, they won't, or can't, live up to the legacy. But as the night gained momentum, you tended to forgive the cracks in Daltrey's voice – he sang with passion, even if he can't wail with the clarity of the past. You got past the fact that Moon and Entwistle weren't up there on stage and enjoyed the manic attack of Zak Starkey (that's Ringo's boy, you know) on drums and Pino Palladino's statuesque motionlessness on bass. And as for Townshend, well, you'd be hard pressed to find many flaws in his ferocious guitar work, or his vocals, for that matter.
About five songs in, the show started to gel: "Who Are You" gave Townshend and the rest of the band – including his brother Simon Townshend on guitar and vocals, and John "Rabbit" Bundrick on keyboards – a chance to play with more power. "Behind Blue Eyes," one of the Who's loveliest songs, was also nicely done, opening with just Daltrey's voice and Townshend on guitar and harmonies, before the rest of the band joined in to bring the tune to a crescendo.
But the moment you really felt the connection between band and fans came with "Baba O'Riley," its sequenced synth intro leading into the power chords that really kick things off on the way to that "Teenage wasteland" chorus which practically everyone in the place roared back at the stage along with Daltrey.
"Sometimes when it starts I think, '(Bleep), you're a clever little song,'" Townshend said at its close, talking about how "Baba" took on a life far beyond what he'd dreamed when he wrote it for a never-finished movie project called "Lifehouse." "So pleased you still love it the way you do."
From there on out, the night cooked as hot as a pair of 60-something legends can make it.
"Eminence Front" established a groove that Townshend soloed and sang over with strong passion. A pair from the "Quadrophenia" – especially a hard-charging version of "5:15" – were great to hear live once more. Then "We Won't Get Fooled Again," which thrilled from its opening power chords to Daltrey's final primal scream and Townshend's last windmill bash at his guitar. The main set closed with "My Generation," the Who's signature song, expanded here from the fast-paced three minutes of the original into an extended workout with Daltrey in f-f-f-fine stuttering form and Townshend and the band stretching out to solo.
"If they just play something from 'Tommy' now, I'll be happy," a guy nearby told his date during the break before the encore. Moments later, he was overjoyed as "Pinball Wizard" segued through "Amazing Journey" and "Sparks" to wrap up the "Tommy" suite with "See Me, Feel Me."
Then came the giving of thanks, and a final song, the new "Tea & Theatre," a gentle acoustic number done just with Daltrey and Townshend, the last of the Who, to send their fans happily home into the night.