The Who Air Canada Centre, Toronto, ON, November 23

The Who Air Canada Centre, Toronto, ON, November 23
Photo: Lucia Graca
A few years ago, I foolishly passed up a chance to see the Cure. I didn't want to see an old Robert Smith because, in my head, he still looked like the guy that made Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. With some inevitable exceptions, the music of our youth stays tethered to the past, giving us a tendency to freeze those bands in carbon. And that's what makes Quadrophenia so interesting.

While the Who released the rock opera in 1973, they set it nearly a decade earlier. It was steeped in the past, even from the outset, and it inherently considered the dangers of nostalgia and the pitfalls of idealization and unwavering conviction. Essentially, the past can haunt you but the future will kill you.

So, by trotting it out almost 40 years later, Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and co. got to spotlight one of the record's prevailing thematic concerns without ever treading on cash-grab territory. Not just an opportunity to dust off milestone material, it also made for a poignant and enthralling set.

Telling the tale of Jimmy Cooper, a disturbed mod with four distinct personalities, a penchant for amphetamines and misplaced nostalgia, it is an epic album with some of the combo's most ambitious work, albeit not a single CSI theme song.

Previous Quadrophenia tours incorporated a slew of ancillary elements, all aimed at fleshing out the story yet purportedly distracting from the music. For this edition, Daltrey stripped down the setup, refocusing the show on Townshend's compositions. Of course, it still took 10 virtuoso players to pull it off.

Intro "I Am the Sea" brought the band out to a mod slideshow interspersed with shots of the surf. With much of it set in Brighton, Quadrophenia relies heavily on the water, both for atmosphere and metaphor (i.e., waves go on and on, no matter what).

Thus, the title track paired its war-ready horns with Townshend's guitar combers. Moreover, most cuts floated on buoyant keys or ascending horns, especially "The Dirty Jobs."

Townshend may look every bit of his 67 years, but his fretboard work remained dexterous and dynamic. For his part, Daltrey was energetic and his voice was robust, though both stumbled briefly during "Helpless Dancer." Throughout, drummer Zak Starkey was an unsung hero, deftly pacing songs like "Cut My Hair" and going grand on "The Rock."

Regardless, two of the evening's most powerful moments came from ghosts, with a surprisingly effective prerecorded John Entwistle delivering a stunning bass performance on "5:15" and Keith Moon providing cockney backing vocals on "Bell Boy." Literally looking back, Daltrey spent parts of the gig turned around, staring up at images of his fallen comrades, various younger Daltreys and historical newsreels.

As with most back-to-front, full-record affairs, the show had unavoidable dips, particularly an unremarkable take on "Sea and Sand," which did little more than advance the plot. Although, it was only a minor misstep in a night filled with highlights.

Naturally, the post-Quadrophenia encore was an obligatory best-of. Sure, seeing Townshend attempt sporadic windmills and getting a glimpse of Daltrey's famous torso were par for the course, though the intro to "Baba O'Riley" still induced chills and an impassioned "Behind Blue Eyes" produced mass swaying.

Yes, playing Quadrophenia in full can't help but stoke nostalgia, though it did it through erudition, as well as emotion. It's a testament to its quality that it remains wholly worthy of the large-scale revisit.