After a lifetime of hearing the music of one of the all-time great bands — whether listening, as a fan, or simply absorbing it, through the culture — there's something about finding yourself in the same room with it. Particularly when the band produces a sound as distinctive as the Who does, with Roger Daltrey's howl, by turns defiant and vulnerable, with Pete Townshend's polyglot guitar, alternately skittery and booming.
I'm not ordinarily a great fan of screaming in rock. But when Daltrey unleashed his trademark roar at the denouement of "Won't Get Fooled Again," two hours into the band's set Tuesday at the Theater at MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, it brought chills. It was partly because it sounded great, of itself, and partly because it was the exact sound we've been hearing coming out of our speakers for more than four decades, now right there in front of us.
The Who — with original members Daltrey and Townshend, plus a backing band skilled at reproducing the idiosyncratic styles of bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon — produced several such moments during a generous set that spanned the early-mod singles, highlights from "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia," and the "CSI" theme songs.
They got right down to business with blistering renderings of their first and last great mod singles: "I Can't Explain" and "The Seeker." Then came a satisfyingly off-kilter "Who Are You," before a return to the glorious guitar pop of "The Kids are Alright," "I Can See for Miles" and "My Generation." Screens behind the stage showed scooter-riding mods storming the English seaside.
For decades, Townshend has been recognized as one of the great guitarists of rock. On the evidence Tuesday, he might still be underrated. Among the best parts of the evening were the new little fills and embellishments he added to long-familiar songs — bluesy runs, delicate fingerpicking, hammering shred — expanding and extending the spirit of the originals.
He did experience some trouble with a detuned and trebly guitar on "Behind Blue Eyes." He apologized and switched guitars, but "Bargain" fared little better. "Join Together" got it back on track, and the energy built for the rest of the night.
Now, let's talk about Zak Starkey. Ringo's boy and Moon's godson, he has somehow managed to master the strengths of both — his father's accent-rich feel, and his predecessor's rollicking energy. He has now played with the Who far longer than Moon did, and has made himself integral to the band's live sound — not always playing precisely the parts on record, but playing in the same style and spirit while adding dynamics. In some ways, he improved on the originals.
Still, it was largely the Pete Townshend show. With brother Simon onstage as second guitarist, Pete was free to alternate between chugging rhythm and fluent lead. His jagged, clattery playing transformed "Eminence Front" into a bluesy guitar exposition. A "Foxy Lady"/"I Don't Live Today" rhythm turned "Amazing Journey" into an homage to Jimi Hendrix.
Other highlights? It was all highlights. One emotional centerpiece of the evening was as much visual as it was musical: Footage of contemporary history and culture, from the Vietnam War and Watergate, punk rock and Princess Diana, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, George Bush and Tony Blair that played behind the band's roaring rendition of the instrumental "The Rock."
Decades of conflict: Plus ça change … or, as Daltrey would sing a few songs later: 'Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss."