Philip Booth, Times Correspondent
TAMPA -- Show me a concert tour by a long-past-its-prime band, and I'll show you a cynical grab for cash. Take the Rolling Stones, for instance, sure to punch the clock every four years for another workmanlike world tour. Ditto for any number of lesser British or American acts from the early rock era.
The Who, on too many occasions, has fallen victim to the same temptation, trotting out the hits for stadium or arena treks whenever the solo careers of guitarist-songwriter Pete Townshend or singer Roger Daltrey seemed most in danger of collapsing.
The band's latest jaunt, though, may actually be about the joy of playing meaningful music, to judge from the Who's show Tuesday night at the Ice Palace. Daltrey, 56, Townshend, 55, and bassist extraordinaire John Entwistle, 55, attacked vintage material with more vigor, and in a more creative manner than the three have demonstrated in a long time. The 2 1/2-hour show, far more inspired than their 1997 Quadrophenia show at the same venue, nearly made us wish that the group would follow up on promises of a long overdue return to the studio.
About 12,000 fans were treated to sturdy, often even exciting performances of familiar favorites during a concert that began and ended with two songs dating back 35 years. I Can't Explain, the opener, all British Invasion bounce, had Townshend offering four ceremonial bowling-ball strikes on his guitar, and Daltrey executing the first of many microphone-twirling moves. The final My Generation, once a counterculture anthem, turned into a sprawling, feel-good jam, bolstered by Townshend's incisive guitar solo, tasty organ work by keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick, and Zak Starkey's typically propulsive, swaggering drumming.
Seldom a disappointing note was sounded in between, thanks in part to the real cohesion of these players, as opposed to the oversized ensembles that have turned previous Who shows into virtual revues. The mid-'60s charge continued with Substitute and Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere before swerving in another direction with the funk-edged punch of the seldom performed Relay.
Entwistle, white-bearded and looking like somebody's rough-and-tumble grandfather, sang lead on My Wife, with backup help from the tan, fit and well-preserved Daltrey. That tune, complete with the bassist's trademark thundering 16th-note runs and a last-chord air leap by Townshend, was the first of a string of singles from the immensely popular Who's Next album, released in 1971.
"I suppose when I die, I'll have someone bury it with me," Townshend said of the disc, raided for the shimmering keyboards and power chords of Baba O'Riley, the familiar strains of Bargain, Getting in Tune, I Don't Even Know Myself and Behind Blue Eyes. A triumphant Won't Get Fooled Again was equipped with as much fury and power as the piece had back when its composer was young and angry.
Townshend, unusually chatty and often extolling the glories of Florida sunshine, addressed reports about his hearing loss, supposedly the reason he's shied away from playing electric guitar during the Who's most recent road trips.
"My hearing is just fine," he said, moments before plunging into a solo version of Drowned, accompanied only by his hard strumming on an acoustic guitar.
That Quadrophenia piece was joined by others from the 1973 rock opera, including Real Me and 5:15, the latter a showcase for Entwistle's amazing array of sliding, slapping and fingertapping maneuvers on his fretboard. Fans were also treated to latter-day hits You Better You Bet and Who Are You and, during the encore, a loose, open version of old favorite Kids Are Alright. Townshend's interjection, the unofficial thesis for the show: "We're still alright."
Tommy, the Who's 1969 rock opera, yielded Pinball Wizard, which opened with its usual fast-strummed guitar figure, yet another Townshend creation that has become one of the world's most beloved, most famous rock 'n' roll riffs. Didn't they all turn out that way?