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Review: The Who at the BB&T Center in Sunrise

What happened to Pete Townshend? This question was the only one worth asking as the audience filed out of the BB&T Center in Sunrise Thursday night, minutes after the Who guitarist unexpectedly left the stage during what turned out to be the only encore on the opening night of the Who’s “Quadrophenia and More” tour.

Townshend exited the stage during a shaky rendition of the 1981 hit “You Better You Bet,” and after he failed to reappear to finish the song with the band, singer Roger Daltrey muttered to the crowd, “Pete’s having guitar troubles.” And then, following a nod to someone offstage, Daltrey proceeded to rush the remaining musicians through an awkward and dramatically Townshend-less “Baba O’Riley.” When the song was over, Daltrey told the audience good night, and an otherwise terrific concert came to an abrupt, mystifying end.

So what happened to Pete Townshend? A representative for the band could not be reached for comment early Friday morning, but Townshend’s brother and fellow guitarist Simon Townshend explained on his Twitter account (@simont4000) at about 12:30 a.m., “pete walked off tonight because it was too loud. was a good show but had some technical problems.”

Pete Townshend’s hearing problems are almost as legendary as his guitar-playing. For years, he has claimed to suffer from tinnitus, a chronic and incurable ringing in the ears, and in 2010, complaining that his ears were still ringing weeks after the band’s performance at the Super Bowl halftime show, Townshend told Rolling Stone, “If my hearing is going to be a problem, we’re not delaying shows — we’re finished. I can’t really see any way around the issue.”

Townshend’s sudden exit marred what until that point was a well-executed resurrection of the Who’s 1973 rock opera “Quadrophenia,” a 17-song examination of 1960s British youth culture as seen through the eyes of “Jimmy,” a young man who suffers from a multiple-personality disorder. By no means an overlooked masterpiece, “Quadrophenia” nonetheless has been overshadowed by the Who’s other rock opera, the 1969 mega-hit “Tommy.” But Thursday night, Daltrey and Townshend stripped the years away and reminded fans why, on the cusp of the album’s 40th anniversary, “Quadrophenia” deserved to be dusted off and taken back out on the road.

With video footage of the Who in its guitar-smashing heyday providing a stark, but not unsettling, contrast with the grandfatherly men Townshend (67, and resembling the world’s coolest music professor in his dark shades and natty attire) and Daltrey (68, and looking not unlike a Hobbit elder who’d wandered far from the Shire) have long since become, the show offered a near-perfect balance of spectacle and artistry. Daltrey and Townshend, the only surviving members of the original Who lineup, were joined onstage by an eight-piece band that included longtime Who sideman Pino Palladino on bass, the aforementioned Simon Townshend on guitar and Ringo Starr’s son Zak Starkey on drums.

While Daltrey can’t hold the high notes for as long as he once could, he still can hit them, and until the encore, his voice offered few other traces of diminishment. Beginning with the urgent “The Real Me” and concluding with the pleading “Love Reign O’er Me,” whose chorus and piano-based melody serve as the album’s motif, “Quadrophenia” provides many opportunities for the singer to showcase his distinctive, explosive vocals, and this concert was no different. With Townshend, the Who’s dyspeptic, creative genius and windmilling focal point, to Daltrey’s left, the pair seldom interacted onstage, but neither did they display any of the fraternal animosity and competitiveness that has been a hallmark of their partnership since the beginning.

The show reached its zenith during “5:15,” the howling, brass-punctuated number that also serves as the album’s cathartic centerpiece. Townshend was at his most-dynamic here, his swinging right arm a blur as he pummeled his guitar repeatedly with upstrokes. Daltrey, meanwhile, twirled his microphone as if it were a mace and he were looking for a head to strike.

Later, during the five-song greatest-hits encore, that enthusiasm vanished before Townshend did, as the guitarist and Daltrey appeared impatient and spent, as if they were hurrying to finish up and get out of the arena before the effects of the “Quadrophenia” set wore off. They needn’t have worried. Unlike Townshend, the residual high from that earlier performance wasn't going anywhere.

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