Touring to promote the first new Who album since 1982’s It’s Hard, Pete Townshend led the band’s current formation before a packed house at Chicago’s United Center. The guitarist made an earnest case for his special fondness for the city, thanking the crowd for turning out in force.
The show began with snapshots of the band’s distant past, coupled with a glimpse of the near future. Townshend and Co. charged into their debut single, “I Can’t Explain,” as images of their younger selves (including late bassist John Entwistle and late drummer Keith Moon) flickered on screens overhead. Following the mod anthem “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” Townshend introduced “Fragments,” the first track from the forthcoming Endless Wire. The song began with undulating synthesizer loops reminiscent of “Baba O’Riley,” tapping into the Who’s mid-‘70s FM rock history before unfolding into a lush chorus featuring harmony between Townshend and lead vocalist Roger Daltrey.
A particular highlight of the evening was a rendition of the band’s mini-opera, heard on this year’s import-only Wire & Glass EP. These segments ranged from the bluegrass snatches of “They Made My Dreams Come True,” to the cathartic pop of “We Got a Hit,” culminating in a tale of rock nirvana titled “Mirror Door.” The songs followed Townshend’s recent novella, The Boy Who Heard Music, while updating themes from his Lifehouse and Psychoderelict projects. Although Townshend thanked people for the indulgence, the new material proved a worthy addition to the Who canon.
It soon became apparent that Daltrey was having difficulty with his voice. Although he soldiered through anthems such as “Who Are You” and the new “Mike Post Theme,” swinging his microphone and striking iconic poses in his everyman attire, by the forty-five minute mark, the frontman sounded like he was gargling the broken glass he cautioned against previously during “Fragments.” After an acoustic duet and one more song, Daltrey excused himself from the stage.
That’s when things got interesting.
Townshend, unclear of the problem, made winking references regarding the pair’s age, saying, “Hopefully Roger has gone backstage to get some oxygen.” Resigned that the band would have to forge ahead without its fearless singer, Townshend lashed into “My Generation” with a ferocity that seemingly reverse aged him by decades. Some forty years after first penning the line “I hope I die before I get old,” the leaping, sixty-one year old Townshend declared that he couldn’t die, and neither could the rest of the crowd.
The song evolved into “Cry If You Want,” during which the modern Who proved to be a living, breathing band, and not simply a classic rock jukebox. During the song, the band explored various musical twists, and prominently featured John “Rabbit” Bundrick’s organ and Zak Starkey’s powerful drumming. Starkey, son of Ringo Starr, did the family name more than proud on “Real Good Looking Boy,” while bassist Pino Palladino was featured during the aforementioned “My Generation.” As remarkably skilled as this rhythm section is, Moon’s and Entwistle’s absences were nonetheless conspicuous in every beat and note.
Daltrey eventually returned to the stage, apologizing for the state of his voice and hinting at an allergic reaction to something being smoked nearby in the front rows. After “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the band skipped its pre-encore exit, and Townshend asked the crowd to imagine that the band had gone backstage to indulge in all manner of rock star excess. To Townshend’s list of vices, including coke snorting, blood transfusion, and copious amounts of brandy, Daltrey added Benadryl.
Concluding the set was another acoustic duet, Endless Wire‘s elegant “Tea & Theatre.” The characters within the song recalled their lives in much the way Daltrey and Townshend might today. “We did it all, didn’t we?” Daltrey sang fondly, his voice rejuvenated by tea and antihistamines.