Think about it: A bunch of 55-year-old geezers would be performing decades-old songs of adolescent defiance, scores of which have been sold to any Madison Avenue ad man who would have them. True, the group hadn't launched an official Who tour in 11 years, but they've put in so many one-off appearances and concept shows (like the "Quadrophenia" tour) that they now seem about as elusive a concert act as Elton John.
To boot, The Who would be performing songs that still eat up so much time on radio, they practically rate as biohazards - material that should be buried for hundreds of years until it can once again seem fresh.
So why was The Who's reunion show at the PNC Bank Arts Center Saturday such an all-out blast?
For two-and-a-half hours, remaining Who members Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle (backed by drummer Zak Starkey and keyboardist John Bundrick) whipped through their amazing catalogue with so much edge and joy, it erased all the baggage the band and material arrived with. In this superfast night, the group sounded hard and lean, honoring the songs' original vigor.
At one point, Townshend announced, "We're being The Who tonight," as if describing an actor assuming a role. "If you know what that means, tell us," he joked.
From all evidence, "being The Who" meant allowing the band to find the younger selves that still kick within them.
Physically, Daltrey has kept the most of his younger self in evidence. He looked good enough to keep his shirt unbuttoned for most of the show, revealing a still-chiseled chest. Historically, Daltrey can sound dusty and hoarse live. But here he only sounded better as the night wore on, never holding back on the big screams.
Entwistle performed his agile and spidery bass lines, while Starkey kept the feverish demands of the Keith Moon legacy alive, even in arm-breakers like "The Real Me."
Townshend brought the most inventiveness to the songs. While the band barely fiddled with the arrangements of most numbers, Pete's frequent solos gave them a dash of something new. He continues to structure his solos in a unique way, giving them the density and crunch of riffs.
A few rareties broke up the torrent of hits, including 1973's "Relay," "I Don't Even Know Myself" (from "Lifehouse") and '72's "Let's See Action."
Toward the end, Townshend did acknowledge the connection between the tragedy at Pearl Jam's Copenhagen concert Friday (in which nine people were crushed to death) and The Who's similar 1982 incident in Cincinnati. He said only that he talked to Eddie Vedder and prayed for the families. Nothing so newsworthy was needed, however, to make this show seem like the last thing one expected: an event taking place in the present tense.