ST. LOUIS • Surviving members Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey could not have imagined how hard 50 would hit back when their iconic rock band hit the road on its “The Who Hits 50!” tour two years ago.
The celebration of a half century of studio work and concert performances has been plagued with postponements due to ill health — mostly Daltrey’s — including his being felled by swollen vocal cords and, much more seriously, viral meningitis.
Two 2015 St. Louis dates — May 7 and December 6 — were scheduled, only to be scuttled.
But when the pair, backed by a sextet of support musicians, hit the Scottrade Center stage at long last Saturday night, it was Townshend who had taken ill with the flu.
The illness was most evident in a singing voice which, the musician jokingly acknowledged, mimicked that of “Kermit the Frog.”
Townshend nonetheless soldiered on, giving a bravado performance on guitar, featuring numerous displays of his signature windmill move— one of rock’s most perfect and powerful gestures.
It was Daltrey who truly astonished, though, singing with an abandon that belied not only his health struggles, but his 72 years on the planet.
A long note held during the set-opening “Who Are You” indicated that the singer might have a little extra to give, a notion that was confirmed time and again throughout the concert.
“Who Are You” also served as a tribute to the two Who members who have passed away. Photos of drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle were shown repeatedly on the video screens as the song played out.
From there, the band (with Zak Starkey, son of Ringo Starr on the drums) bounced back and forth through its extensive catalog, calling up early hits including “The Kids Are Alright,” “My Generation,” and “Pictures of Lily.”
Daltrey noted that the group at the outset was focused primarily on the release of hit 45 rpm singles.
“We were a boy band,” he quipped. “A very ugly boy band” — a reputation dispelled by the releases of “Tommy,” “Who’s Next” and “Quadrophenia.”
The group tore through mid-period classics such as “Behind Blue Eyes, “Bargain” and “Join Together,” the latter song becoming a sing-along that so satisfied Daltrey that he applauded the audience.
“Yourselves!” he cried.
The show’s high-water mark, though, was the one-two punch of “Love, Reign O’er Me,” the dramatic ballad from “Quadrophenia,” and “Eminence Front,” a stretched-out guitar showcase for Townshend.
On the former, Daltrey loosed a high, wrenching scream that by all rights should no longer be in the arsenal of a 72-year-old.
Incredibly, it is.
“Now you gotta hear me croak again,” Townshend lamented before “Eminence.” But he mostly let his guitar do the talking.
As the set roared to its conclusion, the band spotlighted songs from its “Tommy” rock opera, including “Pinball Wizard” and “See Me, Feel Me,” and “Who’s Next” classics “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
Earlier, Townshend thanked the band’s fans for hanging on to their tickets through the multiple date changes. The many empty seats in the upper reaches of the arena however indicated that many ticket-holders chose not to stick with the band through sickness and health.
A few audience members may have bailed due to the switch in opening acts. Freshly minted Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Joan Jett & the Blackhearts dropped off the bill, in favor of little-known Australian bassist and bandleader Tal Wilkenfeld.
A noted side musician for artists such as Jeff Beck, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, Wilkenfeld is testing the waters as a solo act. Her set featured sounds ranging from fusion jazz to hard rock to her ethereal new single, “Corner Painter.”
Though some subtleties of her dexterous bass playing were swallowed up by the arena setting, Wilkenfeld demonstrated she is an artist with promise.
The Who set list:
Who Are You
The Kids Are Alright
I Can See for Miles
The Real Me
Pictures of Lily
Behind Blue Eyes
You Better You Bet
Love, Reign O’er Me
See Me, Feel Me
Won’t Get Fooled Again