“Hope I die before I get old.” Pete Townshend will never escape those fantastically fatalistic words he wrote – and Roger Daltrey first sang – nearly 50 years ago. There is no way around it: Pete Townshend is old, Roger Daltrey is old, the songs are old, nearly everything about the Who is old. If the Who’s previous reunions have proved that “old” and “timeless” are not mutually exclusive, it’s always been up to the surviving pair of Townshend and Daltrey, along with their latest recruits, to inject life into material frozen agelessly in the minds and hearts of millions.
Even at its most precarious the band has seemingly taken the burden seriously, and it was no accident the Who sounded renewed at the Allstate Arena Thursday. The 1978 death of drummer Keith Moon and, in 2002, bassist John Entwistle left holes in the Who that many thought could not be filled, but Townshend and Daltrey transformed tragedy into opportunity, firming up the group’s foundation with the addition of drummer Zak Starkey and journeyman bassist Pino Palladino, a pair of invaluable additions that helped boost the first night of two complete performances of “Quadrophenia” to its full grandeur.
Decades of overpraise as Townshend’s reigning achievement have robbed “Tommy” of some of its power — or at worst reduced elements of it to kitsch — “Quadrophenia” has only gained in stature. The 1973 album still courses with an energy and violence befitting the Who’s roots, and therefore suits the band’s swaggering live resurgence. Best of all, the album’s numerous split-personality characters take some pressure off Daltrey, who got to occasionally rest his surprisingly well-preserved pipes while both Townshend and, sometimes, Townshend’s younger brother Simon got turns at the mic. Even so, despite blasting out of the gate with “The Real Me,” the first half of the show found the group easing into the material, with Daltrey and Townshend strong but somewhat restrained.
But then came “5:15″ (or, as lovers of the double-album might know it, the start of side three). Suddenly the energy level lifted, with the barrel-chested Daltrey belting his heart out and Townshend slashing away at his Strat through an extended solo. From “Drowned” though “Love, Reign O’er Me,” the set maintained this high output for the remainder of the night, finding time to pay tribute to its late members (by way of video montage) while daring you to take your eyes off the surviving principals on stage. Townshend and Daltrey frequently smirked and smiled to themselves when struck by certain line readings, and provided plenty of their trademark mic-swinging, arm-windmilling moves, much to the enjoyment of the crowd, which respectfully remained on its feet the entire evening.
Maybe Daltrey and Townshend performed a little less physically than they used to, maybe a little more in check. Certainly the three keyboard players and two horns provided some extra support. But watching the group pound through a short encore of hits, from the anthemic “Baba O’Riley” to the immortal “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” having a blast while celebrating its past, suddenly getting old didn’t seem like so bad a deal. Who knows how many more tours the Who has in it, but if Thursday night was any indication, it intends to go out swinging.