MOUNTAIN VIEW- Pete Townshend was ticked off Monday night, which was good.
After all, this was The Who onstage at the Shoreline Amphitheatre -albeit an aged version - and The Who is a band that has always been fueled by anger and frustration. This is the group, you may recall, that many of the Flower Children did not want at the all-too-groovy Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, because The Who smash things and generally misbehave. God bless 'em.
Whatever was stuck in Townshend's craw Monday night, he used his electric guitar to work through his emotions, sending crashing chords out into the cool night air with his trademark windmill gestures, scowling and jumping about like the angry young Brit who wrote these songs decades earlier.
Considering that this tour is a trip down memory lane, with many of the group's earliest songs, it seemed fitting that Townshend became reacquainted with his bad attitude. The band opened with "Can't Explain," a song Townshend wrote when he was 18.
He has described the song as being about "the frustrations of a young person who is so incoherent and uneducated that he can't state his case to the bourgeois intellectual blah blah blah." That's Townshend all over - angry, brilliant and unwilling to take himself too seriously, at least publicly.
Of the three remaining original members, only Townshend conveyed any type of emotional connection to the music. Roger Daltry, shorn of his flowing locks but still in great shape, looked like the poseur he has always been. He still sees himself as a Rock Star, and his attempts at re-creating the stage moves he used at Woodstock - microphone spinning and knee diving - looked foolish. John Entwistle kept his dignity by standing there and playing the hell out of his bass, but his blue leather jacket, cut short Eisenhower style, looked bad in the '70s and looked worse here.
The other two musicians onstage fared better. Drummer Zak Starkey - Ringo's kid - was smart enough not to try to copy the late Keith Moon on drums. And keyboard player John "Rabbit" Bundrick, essentially a shadow member of the band for more than 20 years, performed with his usual understated and excellent style.
But it was left to Townshend to keep the show, which ran more than 2 1/2 hours, from disintegrating into an embarrassing nostalgia concert that would ruin the band's credibility among its strongest (or richest) fans. Naturally enough, Townshend rose to the occasion.
He set the mood early, speaking to the audience about returning to a venue that he had always associated with warmth and good deeds through his participation in Neil Young's annual Bridge School concerts, which benefit severely disabled children.
"It seems weird bringing The Who's brutalism to this lovely place," Townshend said, "but you wanted it, so here it is."
All of the best songs on this night were the ones that tapped into Townshend seemingly bottomless pit of pain and rage. "5:15" and "The Real Me" from "Quadrophenia." "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Baba O'Riley" from "Who's Next." Even "Who Are You," one of the only good Who songs past a certain period, was delivered with fiery intensity on the strength of Townshend's furious guitar playing.
Clearly, Townshend has abandoned all hope of rescuing what's left of his hearing. Whereas he has played before from behind the safety of a plexiglass barrier to protect his damaged ears, on Monday he more often stood directly in front of his amplifiers, coaxing whatever screaming feedback most fit his interpretation of a given tune. He did own the best spot in the house, because his playing was phenomenal.
Townshend's internal conflicts were on display for everyone to see Monday night. While he is clearly and justifiably proud of his songs, it is also evident that the idea of standing up there as a middle aged man singing songs rooted in adolescent angst seems somehow out of place. While Daltry doesn't know or care that he looks like a clown up there, Townshend is terrified of the prospect.
At one point, he argued with someone in the front row, offering to pay for the person's ticket out of his own pocket so he or she "could go see Kenny G." Another time, he asked for the house lights to be turned up so he could see if people were standing. Spotting someone in a wheelchair, he said, revealingly, "I can see that you are crippled. Aren't we all, aren't we all?"
Which is why, on this night, the most powerful song, the one that truly captured the mood, was "Behind Blue Eyes." With a lovely melody and pretty harmonies, "Behind Blue Eyes" had the aging couples in the crowd hugging each other and swaying to what may be the angriest and most brutal song ostensibly written of love ever recorded.
It is classic Townshend, totally subversive - he dares the listener to really hear the song, to listen, when Daltry sings that, "My love is vengeance that's never free."
There is the aging rocker's love-hate relationship with his fans. Townshend fears being a fraud, yet loves and desires the adulation. And, at least on nights like this one, he goes out and earns every bit of it, as angry as he may be.