There was a time when the idea of the Who's vocalist, Roger Daltrey, teaming in concert with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra to perform "the songs of Pete Townshend" would have sounded like a comic's satirical prediction. During their heyday, Sixties rockers struck most of us as the last performers who would publicly gnaw their own bones while slouching toward the Vegas twilight.

During this Summer of the Geezer Reunion, however, Daltrey's Saturday, July 30, Red Rocks appearance with the CSO seems perfectly natural. After all, Daltrey largely has abandoned his solo career, apparently because he understands that the public will pay only to hear him sing Who songs. Doing so at an all-star bash in March to celebrate his fiftieth birthday gave him the itch to tour again. When Townshend eschewed a thirtieth anniversary Who outing, Daltrey decided to hit the road anyway, assembling a band anchored by virtuoso Who bassist John Entwistle. Townshend offered the use of the band's name with his blessing, but Daltrey wisely declined the offer. The singer also reinterprets the songs rather than doing a straight reading of the material.

If Daltrey can deliver the musical goods, so what if he's fifty? No one told Muddy Waters he was too old to play the blues--and besides, automatically ascribing the worst motives to middle-aged rockers is sophomoric cynicism at its worst. The Who saved Daltrey from a life of sheet-metal work, and in turn he created a vocal and visual style that's still influential today. Nothing he does for the rest of his life can match his earlier achievements and he knows it. Clearly it takes guts to face the ghost of a celebrated youth before thousands of expectant fans.

Yet when Daltrey sings with a sweetly sawing orchestra, those who saw the Who when they were the loudest, most aggressive band on the planet can expect a jolt of disorientation. For them, the newly released boxed set The Who: Thirty Years of Maximum R&B will be a reminder of the band's creative power. The four-disc package contains 79 songs, most remixed or remastered, that trace the band from its London club days to its contribution to a 1991 Elton John cover collection. The companion booklet offers excellent thumbnail histories of a group that not only helped to forge the heroic myths of modern rock but struggled more desperately than any of its contemporaries to live up to them.

The Who's history is replete with contradictions. Originally, for instance, the members of the Who were exemplars of the Sixties mod movement, but this was a PR gimmick suggested by their first manager. Townshend and the others soon outgrew this image, and the guitarist overcame his onstage shyness with perpetual motion; he specialized in kung fu scissor kicks and a playing style that resembled a berserk windmill. The manic clown Keith Moon was just as energetic, pairing with the laconic Entwistle to form rock's greatest bass-drums combo, while street-tough Daltrey brought Townshend's arty tales to vivid life. Through these songs, Townshend, the sarcastic outsider, created a two-way connection with his audience. As played by a band that could harmonize like the Beach Boys while doing the sonic spadework that led to metal and grunge, Townshend's best songs have a naked yearning for identity and a spiritual connection that gave them their lasting emotional power.

Townshend also had an uncanny ability to absorb and expand upon the innovations of others. He transformed feedback, which had been recorded prior to the band's debut, into an integral part of early anthems such as "My Generation" and proved that synthesizers were far more than toys with Who's Next. While others have aped the sound of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, no one's ever attempted to cop the Who's act, which is showcased throughout Maximum R&B. Moon's untamed explosions, Entwistle's nimble but thundering bass, Townshend's assault-weapon ax work, Daltrey's heartfelt howls: These ingredients simply can't be duplicated.

After Moon died in 1978, the others discovered that the recipe no longer worked; the Who, supplemented by drummer Kenny Jones, folded in 1982, having released only ten albums of new material (less than half the Stones' output during the same period). The glut of reissues since then has swallowed up any gems hidden in record-company vaults. None of the six genuinely unreleased songs on the boxed set are first-rate, and the quest for rarities led to the inclusion of other dubious choices. The bloodless funk version of "The Real Me" pales before the original, while the transcendent The Kids Are Alright version of "A Quick One While He's Away" has been supplanted by an odd track that grafts the weak studio rendition onto another live take. Quadrophenia (the fourth in a string of brilliant albums that included Tommy, Live at Leeds and Who's Next) also is slighted. The good, though badly recorded, songs on this double album cry out for remixing. In addition, the Who's final two albums deserve better than the song apiece that they are accorded here.

Of course, there are always nits to pick with retrospectives. In the final analysis, Maximum R&B serves up a generous helping of some of the best rock ever made. Turn it up loud enough and these songs might even make you feel young again. That's probably why Daltrey continues to sing them.


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