SONIC REDUCER What’s the difference between the Who and other boomerclassic rock combos hauling their bones out on the road these days? The fact that onstage at the cozy Reno Event Center on Feb. 23, midway through the kickoff for his group’s cockeyed US tour, Pete Townshend interrupted his own between-song hawk for the Who’s generally ignored recent album, Endless Wire (Universal), with a defiant disclaimer that went roughly like this: "We don’t care if you do buy it. Roger and I will soon be gone, and you won’t need to see us or buy anything because soon we’ll be dead. But now we’re here, and this is what we’re doing right now."
Then the black-clad Townshend, vocalist Roger Daltrey, drummer Zak Starkey, guitarist Simon Townshend, keyboardist John Bundrick, and bassist Pino Palladino launched into Endless Wire‘s "Wire and Glass: A Mini-Opera," which Pete Townshend ironically referred to as his band’s "Green Day moment." The centerpiece of "Wire and Glass" ‘s pocket rock opera, "We Got a Hit," rang with nostalgia and evoked, of all things, "Substitute," and Townshend sounded like both the angry young pop star he once was and the cranky old curmudgeon who would just as soon grumble "fuggit" than flog product.
And in the process Townshend sounded realer than most of the fossils buttressed by pricey pyrotechnics found in the last Stones tour. Is this an accomplishment? Perhaps, because Townshend was always one of the more ambitious and artful rockers of his g-g-g-generation and one of the most bare-faced and vulnerable (tellingly, the Who’s official site these days is the man’s own homespun blog at www.petetownshend-whohe.blogspot.com). Also, I don’t know about the old hippies who came out of the woods for the Who that night, but when you’re accustomed to the spectacle, dancers, rotating sets, and multiple costume changes that dramatize the majority of today’s arena pop shows from Justin Timberlake to the Dixie Chicks a straight-forward band performance is downright refreshing.
But I wasn’t sure what to expect when I fiddled around, making my way up to Reno, Nev. home of the proudly gooberish National Bowling Stadium, hicks-run-amok comedy Reno 911!: Miami, and the neon-poisoned Last Days of Disco décor of kitschy-cute Peppermill Casino. Why start your tour in Reno, bypassing the Bay Area with a date in Fresno? Bad memories of Vegas, the site of bassist John Entwistle’s death during their 2002 tour kickoff? I’d never seen them live before: Keith Moonera Who was way before my time; the late Entwistle epoch, too much for my music storeclerk blood. So it was the Daltrey-Townshend Who for me along with a mix of gleeful, graying long-haired boomers in top hats and polo shirts, indeterminate Gen Xers, and a handful of youngsters all much more male than a Stones, Robert Plant, or even Sex Pistols reunion show. Perusing the Ed Harris look-alikes, I’d venture there’s still something about Townshend and maybe Daltrey’s ready-for-a-brawl manly rasp that always spoke most directly to the smart art-nerd boys, at least in my high school. The Who always seemed to mirror men more acutely than women, despite those tributary pictures of Lily. Even now they work "Real Good Looking Boy" into the set, accompanied by an onscreen montage of Daltrey’s inspiration, Elvis Presley, and Townshend’s awkward intro: "It’s about being a little kid and looking at a big boy and having the courage to admire him as good-looking without any weirdness going on. Not that it is weird!"
But what’s vaguely weird is the fact that a once proudly forward-looking band such as the Who would sprinkle their set so liberally with favorites such as "The Seeker," "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere," "Baba O’Riley," and "Behind Blue Eyes," almost reluctantly putting forth new songs such as "Fragments," "A Man in a Purple Dress," "Black Widow’s Eyes," and those in "Wire and Glass," which cannibalize melodies, devices, and arpeggioed synth lines of songs such as "Who Are You" and baldly lift the curtain on a kind of nostalgia with tunes such as "Mirror Door," which hails sentimental, uncool icons like Doris Day. Even their opening song, "I Can’t Explain," was accompanied by target symbols, band insignia and posters, old photos of the band in Union Jack garb, and The Who Sell Out imagery the latter once primo examples of pop art exploded, literally, in a rock ‘n’ roll context. The effect was powerful but somewhat of a disservice: the band itself is still hard-hitting enough to deliver its songs with absolute conviction, without the crutch of yesterday’s reminders, filled out by Ringo Starr’s competent though far from unhinged son Zak Starkey’s drum work; a husky-voiced but valiant Daltrey, who mastered his mic-swinging rotary-blade moves by the time the encore rolled around; and Townshend, windmilling and leaping, though with less athleticism than he might have had in the past.
Two hours into the show, all doubters were probably ready to push aside memories of the Who’s dead rhythm section, ravaged vocal chords, kiddie-porn controversy, unsmashed guitars, and a commercially stillborn album and stand up for the "Pinball Wizard" encore. Though you wonder what it means when you’re in your late 50s and still singing "Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss" or "It’s only teenage wasteland. They’re all wasted!" and doing it, as Pete Townshend shouted jubilantly, "out in the fields of Nevada." The song remains the same, but now the band’s tone can’t help but have shifted. Perhaps you sound put out to pasture, a bit bitterer than you did as the angry know-it-all who was almost too smart for Top of the Pops. Or maybe a bit like Mr. Wilson, shaking his fist at Dennis the Menace and growling, "They’re all wasted!" You might sound more wise than nihilistic can you explain how inspired you once were? *