By David Menconi
GREENSBORO – Five songs into The Who’s Friday night show at Greensboro Coliseum, Pete Townshend finally came out from behind his shades on “The Punk and the Godfather.” Looking every bit his 67 years, Townshend played the song’s anthemic riff while singing in front of video screens showing his younger, beautiful self.
I have to be careful not to preach
I can’t pretend that I can teach
And yet I’ve lived your future out
By pounding stages like a clown…
Friday’s show was part of The Who’s “Quadrophenia” tour, centered on the classic 1973 Who album played in its entirety. Both the album and 1979 film version are essentially an adolescent suicide note, steeped in the melodramatic narcissism of doomed youth.
But watching its 17 songs performed by a band of old fellows who have lost some mates along the way was sadly poignant. As the video screens showed what a long strange trip it’s been for all of us with a running historical montage, the performance transformed “Quadrophenia” into a meditation on aging and mortality.
First, however, came a spectacular opening-act bonus that recalled the old days when The Who billed itself as “Maximum R&B.” Vintage Trouble brought that to life, a dynamite young quartet playing rocked-up soul that was equal parts Sharon Jones and MC5. They got a half-hour and it wasn’t nearly enough.
Alas, the headline set got off to an unpromising start with a few too many early rough edges. Frontman Roger Daltrey missed some notes, and there was an awkward interlude where Townshend got testy with the stage crew over a click track that wasn’t supposed to be going.
But once they got rolling, it was quite nice, thanks in part to an excellent supporting cast: drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo’s son), bassist Pino Palladino and Towhsnend’s younger brother Simon on guitar and vocals.
As for who Starkey and Palladino replaced, Keith Moon (dead since 1978) and John Entwhistle (2002), they did not go unacknowledged. During “5:15,” Palladino quit playing as the video screens showed an amazing Entwhistle bass solo. And a film of Moon stood in for his theatrical vocal cameo on “Bellboy.”
Townshend’s wind-up guitar windmills and Daltrey’s microphone twirls got some of the best crowd responses of the night. And as shaky as things had been at the start, both men were fully engaged and in control by the end. “I’m One” was lovely, and Daltrey hit the closing “Love, Reign O’ev Me” top dead center.
With “Quadrophenia” done, it was time for dessert, which was basically the set they played at the 2010 Super Bowl. “Baba O’Riley” led to “Pinball Wizard,” then “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Who Are You” on up to the inevitable “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” After 40 years of radio saturation, you’d think “Fooled” would be completely used up. But it’s still kicking, and iconic enough that its mere sonic presence is enough to imply all its grandeur. Even better, Daltrey nailed the feral shriek at the end (still the Mount Everest of rock ’n’ roll screams).
Afterward, the rest of the band left the stage to just Townshend and Daltrey. And they closed on a surprising note with “Tea and Theatre,” a quiet little lullaby from the last Who album (2006’s “Endless Wire”). It was kind of the perfect way to say goodbye:
The story is done, it’s getting colder now
A thousand songs still smolder now
We played them as one, we’re older now
All of us sad, all of us free
Before we walk from this stage
Two of us
Will you have some tea?
I guess you could say the old men are all right. But the song is over.