The Who at Bridgestone Arena, 12/2/2012

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Well, Zak Starkey sure as shit rocked Bridgestone Arena last night. Manning the skins for The Who’s repertory performance of Quadrophenia (“and More”), the late, great Keith Moon’s godson and longtime maximum R&B shoe-filler stole the show, redeeming — and this is painful to say — a somewhat wearied, oftentimes-lifeless, sometimes-rocking performance that, even in its best moments, fell short of conveying the transcendent, life-changing power of rock ’n’ roll. Just as the visceral grandeur of classic footage of the real Who playing Woodstock or Isle of Wight still jumps out of the screen and inspires, being there Sunday night, watching what’s left of the band in the flesh, wasn’t all that more exciting than watching recent crowd-sourced concert clips on YouTube, as we did hours before the show.

Ironically, Enya’s Enigma's “Return to Innocence” was the last song to play over the house PA before Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey & Co. took the stage and showed their age, launching straight into Quadrophenia’s opening-song-proper “The Real Me” and blazing through the double-LP rock opera from top to bottom without addressing the crowd once. The Who played albums live in their entirety 40 years before it was cool, and perhaps that explains why Sunday night’s show felt so rote. It’s not that Daltrey and Townshend just stood still all night — they didn’t — but they performed as if in a fishbowl, as if they were choreographed actors and we were on-looking extras. For a band that in their heyday took onstage spontaneity and danger to new heights, their Bridgestone performance felt, at best, like a Monty Python sketch with no punchlines, and, at worst, totally safe and utterly predictable. In other words: This was your quintessential old-man rock show.

In trademark fashion, Daltrey marched in place and swung his mic by the cable like he was lassoing an imaginary bull, as Townshend lunged back and forth across the stage, beating his guitar like it was a percussive instrument and busting out windmills with a fury like he could solve an energy crisis. Nevertheless, for the first third of the show, the band looked totally bored. A glance around the three-quarters-full arena — where thousands of Boomer-age concertgoers stayed in their seats, staring dead-eyed at the stage — and it was clear that, by and large, the feeling was mostly mutual.

Seeing as how Quadrophenia is a cult favorite, some casual-fan bewilderment is to be expected. But the deafening fervor that later accompanied the synthesizer and organ intros to fish-in-barrel arena-rock anthems like “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” during the “and More” encore showed just how great a challenge Daltrey and Townshend presented themselves with. While the pair gets credit for ambition, they struggled to sell the concept.

It wasn’t until a carnival-esque, brass-brimming romp through “5:15” that the band really connected and galvanized a reaction — one garnered in large part by an extended John Entwistle tribute/bass solo piped through the PA and projected on the screens. From that point on, the band steadily drew the crowd in. A hard-charging “Drowned” and an epic, sweeping “Doctor Jimmy” at least brought younger attendees to their feet. Other highlights included a fun-as-hell “Bell Boy,” which included Moon contributing his lines via video (a moment that saw Daltrey smiling from ear to ear) and a torch-worthy “Behind Blue Eyes.”

During those more exceptional moments, scattered throughout the hall, it was easy to pick out Who diehards losing themselves in the music — which, save for a Daltrey straining to hit high notes here and there, was near-flawlessly replicated. We even saw one guy, actual drumsticks in hands, air drumming along. And we don’t blame him. As an album, Quadrophenia is like one long, face-melting drum solo set to music, and watching Starkey do Keith Moon was like watching Daniel Day Lewis do Lincoln. Interpreting every crashing cymbal swell and rolling fill, Starkey immersed himself (and us) in Moon-y looneyness, nailing his predecessor’s feel and style as much as his actual compositions. Mesmerized by that alone, we walked away feeling more like we saw Classic Keith than we did Power-Slide Pete.

In addition to his arresting six pack, the 68-year-old Daltrey — who performed much of the show bare-chested — also had some fine vocal moments — especially on a fairly rousing “Love, Reign O’er Me” and the show-closing “Tea and Theatre.” A selection from the band’s 2006 comeback effort Endless Wire, “Tea & Theatre,” an acoustic duet, was easily Daltrey and Townshend’s most impassioned performance of the night, surprisingly capturing the ears of a crowd clearly unfamiliar with the song. Townshend showed a bit of levity when, after flubbing the end of “Baba O’Riley” by ending a few bars early, he jokingly played it off as a prank on Daltrey — an effort to make him look like an excited, begging puppy.

Last but not least, a pair of Boomers seated in front of us — double-pointing in tandem during “Who Are You?,” trading lines with each other on “Pinball Wizard” and doing lyrically interpretive hat-tipping gestures during “Won’t Get Fooled Again” — gave us a side-splitting vision of how Mitt and Ann Romney might act at a rock concert. And that was almost as entertaining as anything we saw coming from the stage.

So, the gig was pretty good, but don’t kick yourself if you opted to sit this one out.

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