Pete Townshend was 28 in 1973, when The Who released Quadrophenia, the rock opera about a 1960s teenaged Mod named Jimmy whose fractured self reflected the personalities of all four members of the explosive British band.
The windmilling Who guitarist, the most self-consciously analytical of the great baby boom-era songwriters, had hardly reached an old age that, eight years earlier in “My Generation” he would have hoped he’d die before attaining.
But when Townshend wrote Quadrophenia - which, along with front man Roger Daltrey and eight other musicians, he performed in its entirety at a sold-out Wells Fargo Center on Saturday - he was nearly a decade removed from the tortuous teenaged subject matter he chronicled in the most highly ambitious song cycle of his career.
He wasn’t a teenager searching for “The Real Me” and wondering aloud “Why should I care?” and “Is it in my head?“ in muscular, soul searching songs. He was an adult remembering and recreating adolescent angst from an artful remove, a rock hero at the height of his powers who had lived through the counterculture upheaval, looking back on the tumult of own youth.
As they bring the very much worthy of revival Quadrophenia back to life in 2012, Townshend is 67, Daltrey a year older. The two other original members, drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle, are long dead, ably replaced by Ringo Starr’s son Zak Starkey and Pino Palladino. (Moon and Entwistle were still heard from in South Philadelphia: The careening “5:15” included a video clip of a dazzling Entwistle bass solo, and “Bellboy” was similarly sung by the mischievous Moon up on the big screen.
As senior-citizen classic-rockers, the spirits of Townshend and the particularly fit-and-trim Daltrey are more than willing. But as they threw themselves into the double-album greeted by fans as a sacred text, the effects of age were apparent. Before “The Real Me” had begun, Daltrey had flawlessly executed a trademark microphone twirl, and Townshend, arguably the greatest rock rhythm guitar player of all time, crunched out power chords (and teased out the leads not handled by his brother Simon) with vim and vigor. But vocally, neither can reach the high notes they used to.
The band brought the grand, sophistication of stunners like “The Punk and the Godfather” and “Sea and Sand” fully to life. Townshend, though, growled were he once would have keened, and on an improvised add-on to “Drowned” that turned into a call to aid Hurricane Sandy victims, he ad libbed “I’ve lost my voice, but I still have my heart.”
Daltrey relied on a low rumble to fight through the horn blowing Wall of Sound attack. He fared better during the six song non-Quadrophenia encore, particularly on the acoustic opening to the time-tested “Behind Blue Eyes” and the Sinatraesque “Tea & Theatre.”
With the like-it-or-not musical life partners - who rarely looked at each other all night - alone together on stage, the latter 2006 tune was a fitting closer to an evening in which the passions of youth were ruggedly reconsidered. “A thousand songs still smolder now,” Daltrey sang. “We play them as one.” Decades down the road, the fire still burns, though not as brightly as it once did.