George Varga, Pop Music Critic
"We are The Who!"
To a casual observer, Pete Townshend's declaration shortly before the conclusion of his fabled band's Thursday-night concert at the San Diego Sports Arena belabored the obvious.
After all, The Who had just finished a climactic version of "Won't Get Fooled Again." That still-epic 1971 anthem of youthful idealism and independence was the 17th selection in a "Greatest Hits" concert -- and a prelude to a three-song encore that culminated with another heady anthem of liberating defiance, 1965's "My Generation."
But Townshend's "We are The Who!" was a welcome affirmation for longtime fans of this pioneering English rock group. Ditto for singer Roger Daltrey, 56, and bassist John Entwistle, 54, who co-founded The Who (originally known as the Detours) with Townshend 38 years ago.
Having spent 14 of the past 18 years distancing himself from his legendary band, Townshend, 55, now appears to have rekindled his enthusiasm for the group he leads and its formidable musical legacy.
That enthusiasm was evident throughout The Who's two-hour-plus performance, its first here since a 1989 show at what was then San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
The concert was not without its flaws. Most notable were audio glitches persisting from the start of the show through the final encore; the band's tendency to dilute some of its best material -- "Magic Bus," "Who Are You" and "My Generation," in particular -- by engaging in meandering instrumental jams; and Townshend's strained vocals (which at one point prompted a misguided attempt at stand-up comedy between him and Daltrey).
But no matter.
Because when the songs are as memorable and vital as such Who favorites as "Baba O'Riley," "Pinball Wizard" (the only tune from "Tommy"), "Behind Blue Eyes" and "The Real Me," it's hard not to score a succession of knockout punches.
And when a veteran band can perform with such spirit, vigor and fierce determination as Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle, classic rock lives up to that lofty designation, instead of becoming a dusty anachronism fueled by the nostalgic yearnings of its audience and a big payday for aging performers.
That's not to say The Who's performance here was free of nostalgia -- the crowd's and the band's -- or of the inevitable contradictions that occur when a group of once riotous rock 'n' roll rebels mounts a lucrative reunion tour well into middle-age.
But Townshend has confronted the contradictions of growing old in rock 'n' roll longer, and with greater poignancy and insight, than nearly any of his contemporaries, including Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. And when everything clicked Thursday, he and his band mates demonstrated anew the liberating power of their music to transcend time and place.
The concert began with a promising opening set by Unamerican, a four-man English band led by former World Party singer-guitarist Steve McEwan. Its name notwithstanding, Unamerican paid homage to such North American music icons as Neil Young, Kurt Cobain and Bob Dylan with well-crafted songs and a snappy delivery.
The Who opened powerfully with rough and ready versions of three of its earliest hits, "I Can't Explain," "Substitute" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," accompanied by longtime Who touring keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick and Zak Starkey, the son of Ringo Starr (Starkey received some of his first lessons from the manic Who drummer Keith Moon, who died in 1978).
At barely two minutes, "I Can't Explain" provided a short, sustained burst, punctuated by the first of Townshend's patented windmill guitar strums and Daltrey's lassolike microphone twirls, trademark moves that earned cheers.
Looking not unlike a rumpled deacon in his black suit, Townshend was in fine instrumental form, mixing soaring power chords with searing, blues-tinged leads. He apologized for his raspy vocals, although his singing seemed to improve as the evening went on, and his harmonies with Daltrey on "Behind Blue Eyes" and "The Kids Are Alright" provided two of the concert's most touching moments.
The improbably trim and fit Daltrey was in strong voice throughout, although his epic scream on "Won't Get Fooled Again" was nearly drowned out by the roar of the audience. Entwistle remained as stoic as ever, but sang well on "My Wife" and delivered a flurry of quicksilver bass lines on "5:15."
Townshend was only half-joking when he advised the crowd that he and his band mates "were completely, totally, utterly deaf." But the mighty sound he and The Who created should continue to resound for years to come.