HOLMDEL, N.J. Classic-rock legends the Who played, sang and kidded as they did in their younger days in a nearly perfect performance Saturday night at the PNC Bank Arts Center.
"We'll be the Who again just for you," bandleader Pete Townshend told the packed crowd that spanned a wide age range, as he led the band into a blistering take on "Bargain" from Who's Next.
The Who also performed a couple of tracks from Townshend's early '70s, aborted "Lifehouse" project, which was released in a different form this year as Lifehouse Elements.
One of the songs, "Let's See Action," came during the encore. Before playing the song, Townshend referred to the tragic deaths of concertgoers Friday during a Pearl Jam show at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark. A similar experience had occurred before a Who show in Cincinnati in December 1979, when 11 concertgoers died in a rush for general admission seats.
"Please the people, audiences/ Break the fences/ Nothing is," lead singer Roger Daltrey sang. "Let's see action, let's see people/ Let's see freedom up in the air/ Let's see action, let's see people/ Let's be free, let's see who cares."
Another "Lifehouse" number, "Don't Know Myself," featured Daltrey on harmonica, and he shared vocals with Townshend. "Don't pretend you know me, 'cause I don't even know myself," the two sang as they grinned at each other.
In recent years, principal songwriter and lead guitarist Townshend has led his surviving bandmates, Daltrey and bassist John Entwistle, into staging re-creations of some of his major works, such as the rock opera Quadrophenia. (Original drummer Keith Moon died in 1978.)
Regarding his "We'll be the Who again" statement, Townshend explained that during the Quadrophenia tour, which featured other artists singing some of his compositions, he heard fans in the audience chanting "Be the Who again," as opposed to touring with others behind a Townshend opus.
During the 2 1/2-hour, sold-out show, part of a handful of dates on which the band is playing its best-loved songs, no single Who work was the focus of attention.
Townshend, dressed in a black-and-white shirt and black pants, did a few of his trademark backward leg kicks as he wound his hand like a clock handle gone haywire to stroke his guitar.
Though he wrote the famous line, "I hope I die before I get old," the 55-year-old Townshend had plenty of life left in him. He often charged to the front of the stage wildly, strumming his instrument and knocking sideways into frontman Daltrey who stood cockily with his still sculptured torso exposed under an unbuttoned blue shirt, when he wasn't twirling his mic around like he did in the Who's heyday.
Townshend seemed in good spirits throughout the show, though he asked the stadium crew crankily and unsuccessfully to turn off the large screens at the side of the stage so he could hear better.
He seemed genuinely thrilled with the fans' screaming the words to two Who's Next classic anthems. During "Baba O' Riley," the lyric, "Let's get together before we get much older" never seemed more apt. "Won't Get Fooled Again" was the main set's blistering finale.
Townshend made crunching noises with his guitar, Entwistle's long fingers assaulted his bass loudly and Zak Starkey pounded the drums rapidly just like a great punk-band drummer, or like Moon.
The band backed by Starkey, the son of Ringo Starr, and keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick trotted out a succession of rocking early staples, including "I Can't Explain," "Substitute" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" (RealAudio excerpt). Townshend said the last was "a song Roger and I wrote together many years ago back in '65."
Although the lengthy, slow and funky "Magic Bus" Daltrey led the band through lacked urgency, he was far better on a rollicking "You Better You Bet," from Face Dances, the Who's first LP without Moon. It ended with the singer tripping over the outstretched hands of a front-row fan. After Daltrey picked himself off the stage floor, Townshend mock-whipped the fan with an amp cord.
Entwistle, in a red leather jacket, black pants and red boots, stood to the side of his two bandmates except when he took the lead vocal on his primal rocker "My Wife," which came early in the set and kept the audience on its feet, where it remained until the finale.
"This song is about trying to find yourself in the jungle of life," Townshend said in introducing "The Seeker" (RealAudio excerpt), which was much louder and harder than the recorded version, thanks to his slicing guitar work.
Apart from "Let's See Action," the rest of the encore was celebratory. Daltrey, on acoustic guitar and sweet harmonic vocals, led the band through a mellow "The Kids Are Alright." It all ended close to midnight with a version of the Who's signature song, "My Generation" (RealAudio excerpt), which more closely resembled punk-poet Patti Smith's mid-'70s take than it did the band's original.
"[The Who] are holding up better than they were recently," said 29-year-old Hoboken, N.J., resident Tom Beaujour, who had seen the Quadrophenia tour. "I think [Townshend] is doing [this tour] 'cause the other guys want to do it, and yeah, he wants the money. [But] he should have the right to spend his summer playing Who songs."