At Verizon Center, the Coots Are Alright

By Andrew Beaujon
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Pete Townshend invented the power chord. And the rock opera. And the Internet. Okay, maybe not, but the storied guitarist and songwriter foresaw it, he said on Monday night, introducing the Who's 1972 single "Relay," which he cryptically referred to as his "second look into the future."

It was a minor single, and one of the few lesser-known tracks this year's Kennedy Center honorees (minus, of course, deceased original members John Entwistle and Keith Moon) played during an often epic, occasionally frustrating concert.

The six-person iteration that rolled into Verizon Center was more than just Who's Left -- though drummer Zak Starkey (yes, Ringo's son), guitarist Simon Townshend (yes, Pete's brother), bassist Pino Palladino and keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick initially played too tightly to approximate the classic quartet's sloppy majesty.

The upcoming DVD "The Who Live at Kilburn 1977" shows how the early lineup could fill an arena with two fewer musicians, adding nothing more than the odd canned Moog part. On Monday, Bundrick's swirly keyboards danced through mod hits like "I Can't Explain" and "The Seeker" while cheesy projections robbed song after song of might. But then, during "Who Are You" (cheesy projection: a bunch of department-store mannequins, one painted red), singer Roger Daltrey's sometimes tentative rasp locked in with the band's studio-tanned precision, and Starkey found a secret pulse in the song's long breakdown.

Afterward, Daltrey complained about "playing all these heavy rock songs right off the bat" and introduced 2005's "Real Good Looking Boy," a cringe-inducing song about growing up loving Elvis. Then things turned really grim: Townshend introduced 1978's "Sister Disco" (cheesy projection: a sort of billboard/witch creature who glowed during downbeats) as having been written during a period when "disco was everywhere; we thought that rock-and-roll would get swallowed up by it." With its proggy keyboard break and self-important lyrics, it was enough to make almost anyone root for dance music.

But fumbles were rare once the band got back on the greatest-hits cowpath. "Baba O'Riley" was thrilling; the Townshend-sung "Eminence Front" (cheesy projection: bubbling lava lights) was meaty and angular. It was also a chance for Daltrey to rest his voice, which returned with force during "Love Reign O'er Me" and during one of the great moments in rock, when he belts out an extended "Yeah!" during "Won't Get Fooled Again." Palladino acquitted himself well during "5:15" and on Entwistle's famous bass solo in "My Generation" (the lyric "Hope I die before I get old" is no longer delivered with bitterness, or even irony), and Townshend showed he wasn't done exploring "Tommy" during an extended encore, when the projections were mercifully switched off and musicians old and new gelled on a medley of tunes from the hoary but still grand rock opera.

It probably wasn't what a Who fan might have seen in the old days, but as Daltrey sang on the touching closer "Tea & Theatre," which he and Townshend performed on their own, "We made it work."

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