Blithely cool and typically uninhibited, Pete Townshend on Friday night further refined a concept that's become musical high fashion these days: the aging rock star reinvented.His fuzzy vocal chords lithe and limber, his guitar chords impeccable, his feet wrapped in sandals and his short hair degrayed by a touch of something Grecian Formulaic, Townshend left The Who's trademark stadium theatrics at the door, and played the Supper Club as if it really were one.
Of course, even at the piano, Townshend's no Bobby Short, but skeptics were worried that this solo tour, arranged around the release of a greatest hits CD, would find him reciting bits of his fiction or recalling autobiographical anecdotes, a la Ray Davies' recent exercise at the Westbeth Theatre. »Why not?« suggested one cynic who was crammed onto the club's balcony. »Pete's been stealing from Ray for thirty years.«
But Townshend, alone onstage except for a keyboardist, has found his comfort zone these days without compromising his act; so at ease, in fact, that he checked his watch just after 11 and realized that after two hours, it was probably time to wind down.
Without a hint of anxiety, Townshend breezed by on the strength of his terrific solo work, from 1972's groovy »Sheraton Gibson« through the mellowed but still discordant riffs of »English Boy,« tossing in a chunk of Who material - mainly »Quadrophenia« stuff - and interacting easily with what's become an almost-hometown audience. Shifting emphasis and subtly altering some tempos and textures, Townshend offered new colorations to much of the music, but never at the cost of familiarity. Still, overall, it was a performance more consistant than transcendant.
It's clear that Townshend long ago came to terms with life after The Who (although some of the band, including Townshend, will reunite in late June in London's Hyde Park to perform »Quadrophenia« for The Prince's Trust chairty), although the underlying mantra of the evening seemed to be age: his age. But Townshend's obviously come to terms with 51 as well: talkin' the blues on »Slit Skirts« - one of the evenings glorious moments, along with the brilliant tempo mix and acoustic guitar of »Heart to Hang Onto« - the singer summoned up just a touch of arrogance with the lyric, »Can't pretend that growing older never hurts.« That's a line he wrote 15 years ago.
Gender and gender confusion also have been recurring themes in Townshend's work, and important ones. »I've written eleven songs with 'boy' in the title,« he said, segueing into »I'm a Boy« and »Rough Boys.«
Though Townshend's piano hammering left lots to be desired - Who maven Ira Robbins recalled seeing Pete at the keyboard only once before - he coaxed killer chords out of »Rough Boys« and fashioned a brilliant amalgam of »Magic Bus« and Marvin Gaye's 30-year-old classic, »Baby, Don't You Do It.«
Throughout the concert, Townshend, who gets my vote as rock's reigning Chairman of the Board (behind Ol' Blue Eyes, perhaps?), kept up the chatter, taking good-natured digs at Roger Daltrey, Howard Stern (»My nose is bigger than Howard Stern's . . .«), Garth Brooks, and, typically, himself. He showed the supreme confidence of playing »A Legal Matter« country style. »I wrote this when I was seventeen,« he said. »Nobody had asked me to marry them, but if they had, I was going to sing this.« Even without »Tommy,« a Pete Townshend show is, at least, a rock operetta.