The scene before the Who stepped on stage Tuesday night at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium looked grim for anyone who has ever cared about the legendary British rock group.
Many longtime Who fans, in fact, have been anxious since hearing the news that the three surviving members of the band--guitarist Pete Townshend, singer Roger Daltrey and bassist John Entwistle--were going on the road again.
This return--seven years after a highly successful "farewell" tour--conjured up visions of a veteran prizefighter who, driven by either ego or money, just can't call it quits. So he ends up stepping into the ring one time too many and gets humiliated by the lightning jabs of a younger and stronger opponent.
In the Who's case, there was no chance these musicians, all in their mid-40s, would be upstaged by some young rock 'n' roll hotshots, because there is no support act on the tour, which includes stops tonight at the Universal Amphitheatre and Saturday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
But the group's performances would invariably be weighed against the greatness of the band's shows back in its prime, when the Who was rivaled as a creative force in Britain only by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Could the Who--now celebrating its 25th anniversary--still stand tall against that memory?
The outlook wasn't good at the start of the evening because of all the commercialism surrounding the show.
First, huge banners advertising the tour-sponsoring beer covered the banks of speakers on both sides of the stage. Then, disc jockeys from radio station 91-X (XTRA-FM) came on stage to welcome the more than 40,000 fans, plugging the station six times in three sentences.
While the jocks were promoting the station, an airplane was circling the stadium pulling a banner that reminded the audience that the Who's gala, benefit performance of the rock opera "Tommy" tonight at the Universal Amphitheatre would be carried live, on a pay-per-view basis, on cable TV. Implored the banner: "Order now."
There was a time when Townshend would have broken a guitar over the head of anyone who tried to capitalize on the band in such a manner.
By allowing the hucksterism, the band--which fell at least 10,000 seats short of a sellout--seemed severed from its own proud and independent heritage. Would its music be just as compromised?
But this tour deliberately sidesteps direct comparisons with the original Who. That's why there should be an asterisk by the band's name this time around, to distinguish it from the true Who. Instead of the creative glow and spontaneous fury of the days when it was a quartet and still included the late Keith Moon on drums, this edition of the Who* featured drummer Simon Phillips and was augmented by 11 other musicians.
This lineup--a five-piece horn section, three backup singers, a keyboardist, a percussionist and a second electric guitarist--resulted in a more deliberate and polished presentation.
In some cases, notably key moments in the half-hour mini-version of "Tommy" that opened the three-hour concert, the added musicians enriched the songs, adding to their majesty. Elsewhere, however, the added trappings seemed overblown, sometimes flattening the music's emotion.
Still, there was an inspiring sense of determination and pride as the Who* took the stage at 7:30 p.m. and the beer banners were suddenly pulled down and replaced by Who banners sporting a colorful series of pinball images.
Townshend skipped about the stage with the joy of a man doing what he loves, and he set down the acoustic guitar at several points to play electric guitar with the fury and bite of old.
That same pride and craft were evident in the performances of Daltrey and Entwistle, and the added musicians, too, seemed well drilled.
For all the spirit of the musicians, however, the real triumph of the concert rested in the continuing power of the Who's songs. Pop music performers over 40 are often equated with nostalgia. That's because most pop songs are so flimsy that the only emotions they provoke after a few years is the memory of what you were doing when you first heard them.
But the best rock songs--including the introspective works of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, John Fogerty and Townshend--continue to offer listeners, young and old, new insights and stimulation.
Both Townshend's short works--from "The Kids Are Alright" to "Won't Get Fooled Again"--and the longer "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia" express the frustrations and desires of youth, and are every bit as artful and illuminating in their way as books by Salinger or Kerouac. That restlessness and fury still echo in the Who's records and in parts of the new Who* tour.
After "Tommy," the spiritually accented story of a young boy who tries to find comfort and meaning in a world where human cruelty contributed to an incident in which he was struck "deaf, dumb and blind," the band moved through a predictable set of Who favorites, ending with a playfully nostalgic version of the Isley Brothers' old "Twist and Shout."
The audience was dominated by fans in their late teens and early 20s who were seeing the band for the first time, but was also sprinkled heavily with older Who fans coming back for, perhaps, a final look.
"I figured this was the last chance I'd ever have to see them," said a 17-year-old high school student from El Cajon. A 39-year-old banking executive added, "This isn't the band that I used to love, but the music still stands up and I wanted to say goodby. Besides, none of us is the same as we were 20 years ago. I remember hitchhiking 100 miles to see the Who the first time. Tonight, I drove here in my Mercedes."
True enough. There's no way this Who* tour is as stirring as the old Who shows, but there's never a substitute for the tension surrounding a band at its creative peak. Still, it's hard not to be touched by the continuing competitive spirit and desire of these musicians.
Rather than simply honor the band's own history with these shows, the three surviving members seem to be saluting the intense relationship that existed between the Who and its fans--and, at the same time, paying tribute to an era in rock. After a quarter-century, Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle are far from kids, but they're still all right.