Rock's Best Preserved Act

The Who's US tour brings vintage British band to 2 million fans in 25 cities. MUSIC: REVIEW

THE night was clear under a crescent moon; but that didn't do it. The audience - ranging from 13-year-olds in heavy metal T-shirts to clean-cut career people - loved it; but that didn't do it. The Who - 25 years after their first gig - lighting up the stage, charging the summer sky, electrifying the pack of fans 54,000 strong, eclipsing their last tour in 1982 - did it. For more than three hours they rocked hard in the outdoor football stadium, crooning lyric love songs, screaming their old rock classics - as we've seen in their movies ``Tommy'' and ``The Kids Are Alright.''

And the kids are still alright. They're rocking in their mid-40s, perhaps rock's best-preserved act - having now abandoned decades of reckless living in the pill-popping, alcoholic, up-all-night fast lane. It was a course that had made them rock music's symbol of the youth drug culture. But no longer is it ``hope I die before I get old,'' but hope I live to do what I love: Long live rock.

Peter Townshend, writer of rock's best love songs - desperate, hopeful, instantly appealing ditties that intertwine and build and burst into heavenly harmonies - sang some new tunes. On guitar, he is a bit less fun to watch than he once was. The young punk Scottish guitarist playing lead, Stephen Bolton, laid down some hot licks but was never invited into the limelight.

The band's notorious volume got it into the ``Guinness Book of World Records,'' and Townshend says he has been immersed in so much loud music that he can't hear himself play anymore. Yet his singing and strumming were right on the mark. He even did a few of his trademark ``windmills,'' thrashing his arm around in a circle, coming up or down hard on the guitar strings - ``like I'm bowling,'' he says in the ``Kids Are Alright'' - despite the promise he made in a recent Rolling Stone magazine interview that he wouldn't do it any more because it tore the flesh from his fingers. Nor does he hurt guitars anymore; no more smashing them for an '80s audience that doesn't need to see a good instrument go to waste.

Singer Roger Daltrey, blue-eyed, goldy-locked Prince Charming of rock 'n' roll, strutted about in tight jeans and a black leather vest, swinging his microphone-cord like a lariat, arm muscles rippling. His voice - rich, throaty, always perfectly on pitch - was even better than expected, from the crystal-clear ``See Me, Feel Me,'' from ``Tommy,'' to the frenzied scream climaxing the band's anthem, ``Won't Get Fooled Again.''

John Entwistle, bassist, plucked away, quietly like the old days, this time gray-haired.

Is it a clich'e to say that Keith Moon, the group's madman drummer, who died in 1978 from an overdose of sedatives, is still sorely missed? One wonders just how Moon - rock's wackiest, the one who accidently smashed a couple of drums the first night he met the band and ended up making it part of his gig - would have been playing a couple decades later. Simon Phillips is now touring as drummer. The five-piece brass section rounded out the songs in a way that live performances seldom sound.

The Sullivan Stadium concert opened with a 15-minute medley from the group's rock-opera ``Tommy'' and rolled into early hits like ``My Generation'' and ``Magic Bus'' (the very words written all over many of the cars crawling through traffic on their way to the concert). Musically the band peaked with a couple of tunes from its sound track from ``Quadrophenia,'' the movie about a young mod coming of age in 1964 London, out of synch with his peers and his family, taking refuge in pills, his motor-scooter, and the sea. The timeless ``Baba O'Reilly'' (a.k.a. ``Teenage Wasteland'') threw the crowd into ecstasy, as did the band's version of Bo Diddly's ``I'm a Man.''

It seems that everybody these days is ending with a tribute to the Beatles: The Who did a perfunctory, but cute, ``Twist and Shout.''

But what didn't fit the whole scene were huge video screens that flanked the stage - giving the audience close-ups of guitar work, Daltrey's biceps, and Townshend's nose. When I looked around the audience, it seemed that more than half were focused on the screens. Would the concert be as fulfilling without the screens? Should bands play in smaller clubs, to a more limited audience? Would we be better off watching them on MTV?

One concertgoer, Steve Holmes from Minneapolis, found the closeups helpful for watching Townshend's guitar work. A guitar student at Boston's Berklee College of Music (he came out early for the Who show), says, ``It was the most awesome show I've ever seen. Townshend's awesome.''

But that's what everybody said, this reporter countered. Any other way to describe it?

``Ok, then, he's ... incredible.''

Touch'e. Ordinary adjectives will have to do for the epiphanous event. Long live the kids.

The Who has played 16 of the 25 cities on its current tour, with ticket prices ranging from $25 for a regular concert to $1,500 for front-row seats at benefit ``Tommy'' shows. According to projections, roughly 2 million people will see the Who on this American tour. The tour continues with shows tonight in St. Louis; Aug. 13 in Boulder, Colo.; Aug. 16 in Tacoma, Wa.; Aug. 18-19 in Vancouver, Canada; Aug. 22 in San Diego; Aug. 24, 26 in Los Angeles; Aug. 29-30 in Oakland, Calif.; Sept. 2 in Houston; and Sept. 3 in Dallas.

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