John O'Rourke, Tribune reporter
One by one, they've paraded through Albuquerque this summer, reminding us of a time when you judged the quality of music by the quality of the musicians making it.
Great rock'n' roll guitarists. Steve Howe has been here, and Jimmy Page. Soon Carlos Santana will perform. For those of us who remember when rock was new, this summer could be our last chance to truly gorge on guitar greats. On Friday, one of the best of them all -- Pete Townshend -- was at Mesa del Sol Amphitheatre, playing on yet another tour by The Who, the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame band that formed in England 37 years ago.
As he moves through his mid-50s, Townshend looks like a high school history teacher. The ravages his body has suffered -- substance abuse problems, hearing impairment -- are well-documented. Still, he steals the show, even from the other accomplished performers who make up The Who.
The venerable band played 20 songs in a 2 1/2-hour set, with Townshend featured most of the time. From the first strains of "Can't Explain" to the dying chords of "My Generation," Townshend on Friday put his stamp on some of the best music of the rock era.
The Who's music is well-suited for virtuoso performers such as Townshend and bassist John Entwistle. So many of the songs, even the biggest hits, are unstructured and meander along in search of an ending, offering the musicians plenty of chances to improvise.
On vinyl, "Baba O'Riley" ends in cacophony, but in person, Townshend's soaring guitar work brings the piece to a spectacular ending. Keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick wasn't with The Who in 1971 when they recorded "Bargain," so the synthesizer bits he adds to the song are new to most of us.
Entwistle is a perfect complement to Townshend because he doesn't demand the limelight. He is one of the best bassists of the rock era, but he has always been content to stand stage left at the drum riser, anchoring The Who's music while allowing Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey to monopolize the attention.
So it was Friday -- until Entwistle let loose with a magnificent solo on "5:15," one of three songs The Who played from their second of two concept albums, 1974's "Quadrophenia." The other, better concept album -- 1968's "Tommy" -- was unfortunately under-represented on the show, with "Pinball Wizard" the only selection.
The Who opened with a couple of songs from the dawn of their career, "Can't Explain" and "Substitute," but otherwise focused on early-1970s music. Anyone hoping to hear "Magic Bus" went home disappointed. Also, nothing was offered from the two albums The Who recorded after the 1979 death of drummer Keith Moon.
The song selection didn't really matter, though, because the various tunes exist only as a vehicle for Townshend to dazzle with the guitar. Here he was alone on stage, tearing up an acoustic guitar on "Drowned." There he was providing the between-songs banter, something you'd expect Daltrey to be doing. And everywhere, Townshend was doing his signature move, the rapid windmill movement of his arm as he strikes his guitar.
As The Who passes through this country, Townshend is leaving no doubt that this is, was and always will be his band.
The Who sent us on our way Friday with a rendition of "My Generation," a song Townshend wrote in 1965. And, even though the song is about Mods in England in a time long gone, it remains relevant today to what The Who offers musically. This generation -- the one we're in -- judges music to be high-quality if enough profanity can be squeezed into each meter, or whether the alleged "artists" can work a dance step into the accompanying video.
Townshend's generation judged music on the quality of the performance. Quality endures. And so always will The Who.