Before the Who's encore Thursday night, singer Roger Daltrey pointed out that the band had played Chicago on the original "Quadrophenia" tour exactly 39 years ago. Pete Townshend seemed skeptical of Daltrey's facts: "Who told you that?" But Daltrey's right: Nov. 29, 1973, also a Thursday, the Who played the International Amphitheatre, now demolished, on South Halsted.
Back then, as Townshend explains in his new memoir, "Who I Am," "Quadrophenia," the group's second rock opera, had been born as a desperate attempt to revitalize the faltering band. "My idea was to take the band back to our roots," he writes. "I was also looking for a way to stroke four eccentric egos, generate a sense of optimism and rally us."
But in 2012, with two of those eccentric egos now long gone, a new "Quadrophenia" tour is less rallying cry than last-ditch effort.
Neither Townshend, 67 (who hasn't released a new solo album in two decades), nor Daltrey, 68 (last album: the redundantly titled "Daltrey Sings Townshend"), have presented any new ideas in ages, and they've toured the whole of "Quadrophenia" once already, in 1996-97.
In the July video conference announcing this go-round, which stretches into 2013, Townshend explained his more basic motive for once again trotting out the old four-horse: "We've been trying to find something we could do together, Roger and I ... We've been anxious to work more together before we drop dead."
Flawed as the concert Thursday at the Allstate Arena was, there was still much to be gained from witnessing composers performing their own masterpiece. (It was the first of two shows in Chicago, the only market in which this tour doubles up.) In his book, Townshend describes "Quadrophenia" as "a complicated, audacious project." The psychological narrative is dense, and he still requires a music stand with charts just to find his way through the notoriously difficult guitar parts.
But the challenge is what makes a straight-up performance of these songs sometimes mesmerizing. Daltrey was in good voice, though he started slow and gained traction through the A side. He seemed to have the most fun huffing a harmonica in place of the violin solo on "Baba O'Riley." (Hilariously, Daltrey unveiled that possibly prosthetic torso of his, undoing one shirt button at a time throughout the night until the entire waxy barrel showed off its full glory.)
Townshend's voice and virtuosity shone, and I counted 21 of his now gimmicky windmills. The most satisfying guitar performances, though, came in twos - when Pete and his brother, support guitarist Simon Townshend, sawed through the soulful grooves of "5:15" and again coordinated flame-throwing solos during "The Rock."
Drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo's kid) and bassist Pino Palladino are the quartet's capable but colorless stand-ins, but the band's lost two original members were still present Thursday, though fortunately not as holograms. ("We thought about it, but everybody's doing it now," Daltrey confessed in July. Whew.) Late drummer Keith Moon was shown in an old video, singing his crack-up lines during "Bell Boy," and a video of John Entwistle playing his bass solo in "5:15" received applause as if he were still alive.
"We're going to play some more sh-- for you," Townshend chuckled as he led the band into a half-hearted encore of other hits, capped by a tender acoustic duo of "Tea & Theatre" at the close of the nearly 2½-hour show. Relieved of the weighty themes of "Quadrophenia," Townshend and Daltrey were jovial, actually bubbly.
Those heavy themes, though, could help connect this particular rehash of the song cycle. "Quadrophenia" isn't protest music, but it is a tale of two bitterly divided social classes clashing within a top-heavy society offering few prospects for its angst-ridden youth.
Sound familiar? Occupy Brighton, for the record, is still active.