NEW YORK — Partway through The Who’s concert on Sept. 1 at Madison Square Garden, Pete Townshend apologized for the band’s rustiness. But the epic performance the group delivered over two and a half hours bristled with an urgency and rawness bands one-third his and Roger Daltrey’s age would sell their souls for.
Kicking off the new leg of the Moving On! tour (part of the band’s self-described “long farewell”), guitarist/vocalist Townshend, frontman Roger Daltrey, the core touring group featuring drummer Zak Starkey, bassist John Button, guitarist Simon Townshend and keyboardist Loren Gold, along with an orchestra, was a bit rough around the edges at times, but that only added to the proto-punk energy and attitude that continues to fuel the band 55 years on. The stage was set tastefully; there was no animation or other special effects — just live looks on the big screen — and Townshend and Daltrey were both clad simply in T-shirts, all serving to strip the show of arena-rock artifice and keeping the focus on the music.
The Who dedicated the first part of the show to the rock opera “Tommy,” playing “Overture,” “1921,” “Amazing Journey,” “Sparks,” “Pinball Wizard” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” The orchestra added depth and richness to “Overture,” and “Pinball Wizard,” the first big hit of the evening, found Townshend deploying his iconic windmill guitar moves. “Who Are You” was splendid, before Townshend noted he had lost his voice and took what appeared to be a cough drop, tossing the wrapper to the floor. He croaked his way through “Eminence Front,” but his determination gave the song an extra punch. “Imagine a Man” and “Hero Ground Zero” — the latter from the upcoming Who album, performed live for only the second time, was dedicated to Townshend’s dramaturge friend, Bob Backer, who died earlier in the day — ended the first segment.
The orchestra took a break while the core band powered through the sweetly melodic and nostalgic “Substitute,” the heavy metal crunch of “The Seeker” and a funky “You Better You Bet.” Townshend and Daltrey performed “Won’t Get Fooled Again” acoustically, as a duo, which on one hand was a letdown because Daltrey didn’t unleash his banshee scream, but hearing a classic arena anthem stripped down to its bones gave the song a different, intimate feel and was a standout moment. A string quartet from the orchestra accompanied the two founding members on a poignant “Behind Blue Eyes.”
With the full orchestra back on stage, The Who debuted “Big Cigars,” also from the new record, which Townshend said should be out in November. Townshend bounced from foot to foot during the intro, excited to share the new song — after, in trademark ornery fashion, asking the audience not to sit down and hoping that the new songs will eventually be “greatest hits — or maybe they won’t.” “You can sit, you can dance, you can go to sleep, I don’t give a fuck. You bought your ticket, it’s done, it’s a done deal.” But his voice cracked when he said he wished the band were sharper and he appreciated “so much love” from the crowd. Over piano and slashing guitar chords, Daltrey poured himself into the song, singing “Down in Guantanamo, waiting for a big cigar.”
Like “Tommy” had earlier, “Quadrophenia,” The Who’s other classic rock opera, took center stage and, depending on your personal taste, was the best bit of the show. Daltrey — whose recent concerns about his voice seemed silly, judging by the power, range and subtlety he sang with Sunday — yelped and twirled his microphone cord through “The Real Me,” Townshend’s voice was back for an emotive rendition of the jangly “I’m One,” during which Townshend forgot a line, asking his brother Simon, to remind him (“I’ve got a Gibson…). “The Punk and The Godfather” and “5:15” were just as wild as when they were released in 1973. A jam segment during “5:15” was thrilling, and Townshend lost a fingernail while windmilling, saying he would feel the pain when he went to bed. He then sang lead again on “Drowned,” giving the tune a much folkier sound than the original, rocking recording (and the excellent rendition Phish often performs since covering the album in its entirety in 1995). Daltrey saved his best for (almost) last, wailing “Looooooove” on the “Quadrophenia”-closing “Love, Reign O’er Me,” a moment that you knew was coming but still inspired goosebumps.
The familiar oscillating synthesizer and insistent piano chords signaled the opening of “Baba O’Riley,” Starkey pounding away, Townshend alternating between punishing chords and crystalline lead lines on his Stratocaster. There was no encore.