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.
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