As The Who’s appearance Friday at Oracle Arena in Oakland once again made clear, Pete Townshend achieved his goal in creating a rock opera for all time with “Quadrophenia.”
Forty years later, played live, The Who’s 1973 double album sounds big, majestic and eminently musical — truly classic, from the waves crashing in “I Am the Sea” to the booming climax of “Love Reign O’er Me.”
The band updated Townshend’s story of a disaffected youth in working-class England with a pastiche of thematically all-over-the-place videos — from images of the band in its youthful heyday to scenes of seemingly every major social and political event from then until now. But for those familiar with “Quadrophenia’s” story line, the presentation enhanced the original tale’s focus on the passing of youth with a poignancy quite appropriate for a band that once vowed to die before it got old. This irony wasn’t lost on the packed crowd of mostly middle-aged (and older) fans, many of whom stood for the entire two-hour-plus show.
Pushing 70, Townshend and Roger Daltrey don’t have the vocal chops they once did, yet passion, experience and professionalism counteract the effects aging has had on their singing. Not to mention fitness. Daltrey, a month short of his 69th birthday, has the best torso in rock ’n’ roll. His unbuttoned shirt showed off abs worthy of a cable TV workout ad. Yet toward the end of the concert, he also announced that he is allergic to pot smoke, and asked people to stop.
The late, great bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon were remembered fondly in excellent video segments on a huge, circular screen backdrop: Entwistle soloing in the epic “5:15,” and Moon’s unmistakable Cockney accent singing “Bell Boy.” Although it might sound hackneyed, Moon’s cameo was an emotional highlight.
And the two musicians’ contemporary counterparts, Pino Palladino and Zak Starkey, joined by Pete’s brother, guitarist-vocalist Simon Townshend, brought an almost equal urgency to what has become a timeless piece. After all, Starkey, the son of Ringo Starr, has now been playing “Quadrophenia” three times as long as Moon himself.
Impeccably musically directed by Frank Simes, with horns and keyboards, the 80-minute “Quadrophenia” on Friday was full, lush and complex, particularly compared to the concert’s coda, with “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Baba O’Riley,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Who Are You?”
With musical motifs reminiscent of those in “Quadrophenia,” the hits didn’t have nearly the intensity of the opera, and Daltrey seemed to prove how pot smoke indeed “closes” his throat.
But it was a small matter in the scheme of a historic event: Hearing a classic work of rock performed with fervor — microphone swinging and windmill guitar work intact, if abbreviated — by its originators.