First Night: The Who's Who of rock on smashing form

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The Independent Online
The Who

Shepherd's Bush

Empire, london

"IT WAS a rough area that - Shepherd's Bush. Kids of 16 walking round with machine guns in violin cases." So Roger Daltrey described his manor in 1967, when the nation associated the west-London suburb with Steptoe and Son. always managed self-mythology better than their rivals.

As well as a hard-earned reputation as the world's best live act (and loudest - Pete Townshend and John Entwistle are said to be as deaf as retired miners), they always had more ideas than their peers. Though they weren't always good ones. Pinball never did displace football as the national sport, no one knows what possessed Entwistle to sport a luminous skeleton suit at the Isle of Wight Festival, and you don't hear too many "rock operas" these days. But plenty has stood the test of time. Their brilliant, art-school yobbishness, caught forever in the definitive "rockumentary" The Kids Are Alright, all smouldering glances, self-analysis and smashing equipment, still serves as a template for parent-unfriendly musicians.

The chance to see survivors Daltrey, Entwistle and Townshend is irresistible to many - tickets are being touted at pounds 200. The trio may be in their fifties, but they don't sound like it. Daltrey, dapper as ever, is in fine voice and Entwistle looks old and grumpy, as opposed to young and grumpy. Townshend hides his baldness under a skull cap. But, by the first instrumental break of the opener, "I Can't Explain", he's wind-milling frantically and Daltrey is swinging the mike through the air.

Sterling support comes from John Bundrick, an organist and long-time collaborator, while the rejuvenating effect of a young drummer - Zak Starkey, Ringo's son - can't be underestimated. But the real star is Townshend. Even now, pretenders like Noel Gallagher and Steve Craddock of Ocean Colour Scene aren't fit to tie his shoelaces. His guitar crackles with electricity, notably on the funky "Magic Bus" and a superb "Who Are You?", scratching a 20-year-old itch. "Five Fifteen" is so powerful that the band doesn't seem to know where to take it, the random, ragged element welcome in an age when musicians no longer know how to surprise each other in front of an audience.

A conclusive "My Generation", where Townshend demolishes a guitar, proves that these prosperous stars haven't forgotten how they used to feel. Rumours abound that new material is in the offing, but this homecoming defied cynicism.