The showstopper at every Who concert is "Baba O'Riley." So it was interesting (but not especially surprising) when Pete Townshend announced to the audience that the iconic anthem that inspires them to heights of ecstasy doesn't do much for him anymore. The cheers are "a reminder that this music is more yours than ours," Townshend said. "But I still own the copyright."
The Who dutifully plumbed the back catalog Saturday, cranking out faithful and occasionally potent renditions of the crowd pleasers: "I Can't Explain," "Who Are You," "Behind Blue Eyes," "Won't Get Fooled Again," and "Pinball Wizard" with support from British session bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr's son) -- a sumptuous, loose-limbed rhythm section that did the late Keith Moon and John Entwistle proud. Townshend's brother Simon contributed harmony vocals and guitar parts.
Roger Daltrey bellowed honorably, replacing what he's lost in vocal girth with extra gravel and phlegm and twirling his microphone like an old rock 'n' roll cowhand. Townshend, who at this point probably isn't inclined to windmill his way through two hours of furious power chords, made persuasive use of his right arm. The copyright owner knows what the consumer wants.
But while the fans were here to relive the past, Townshend and Daltry are touring behind the Who's first album of new material in 24 years, and that's what turned them on. "Endless Wire" often harks back to classic Who sounds and forms: the inimitable synth loop from "Baba O'Riley" is quoted almost verbatim on "Fragments," and the pummeling triplets from "The Punk Meets the Godfather" reappear in "Mike Post Theme." But in concert both were delivered with a freshness and relish that they found harder to muster for the old material.
A performance of last summer's "Wire & Glass" EP -- extended versions of all six tracks are on the new album -- served as the proverbial new-song bathroom break for many fans. It was their loss. "We've Got a Hit" captured the amazed joy of a young band breaking out, and Townshend's pinched singing on "Endless Wire" was a human-scale pleasure tucked amid Daltrey's bluster.
While the Who's nostalgic roar feels a bit manufactured, the show's stripped-down moments were unexpectedly moving. At 52, Daltrey clearly feels a closer kinship with the erudite mocker of organized religion in the new folk ballad "Man in a Purple Dress" than the stuttering kid snarling "My Generation."
And "Tea & Theatre," the last encore, was a quiet stunner: Townshend bent over his acoustic guitar while Daltrey, one hand jammed in his jeans pocket and the other holding a mug, sang: "A thousand songs still smolder now / We played them as one, we're older now / All of us sad, all of us free / Before we walk from the stage / Two of us / Will you have some tea at the theatre with me?"
The Pretenders -- led by a radiant and exuberant Chrissie Hynde in white tails and top hat -- opened up with a spectacular-sounding set of fan favorites that included "Precious," "Back on the Chain Gang," and "My City Was Gone."
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.