The Who, Royal Albert Hall, London

People tried to put him down...
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The Independent Culture

A shamed musical hero brought low before our very eyes, his humiliation beamed directly into our living rooms on the television screen. Not an edifying spectacle. Yep, Extreme History With Roger Daltrey won't be giving Simon Schama any sleepless nights. The History Channel show is "a series in which the former rock star brings the past to life". Last week he was a NASCAR driver, this week he's a Civil War soldier... and tonight he's the lead singer of a Sixties beat combo.

The Who, or what's left of them - they should, perhaps, be renamed The Twho - are playing the Royal Albert Hall for charidee (Teenage Cancer Trust), doing it for the Kids Who Are Not All Right. These are their first UK shows since Pete Townshend's private life became primetime viewing. The balance of opinion and probability is that Townshend is a naive fool, and the warmth of his reception tonight recognises that.

They are also the band's first UK shows since the sudden death of John Entwistle. His replacement is Pino Palladino, arguably the most famous person ever to come from Barry (which isn't saying much: numbers two and three are my dad and me). When Oasis were auditioning new bassists to play their undemanding chugga-chugga-boogie, they asked them to play Entwistle's fiddly bass run from the middle of "My Generation". Which is a little like buying a Formula 1 Ferrari for doing the school run, but it illustrates the size of Palladino's task. He manages admirably, apart from a bum note in the middle of the aforementioned solo (cue wry shrug).

Keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick, so called because he looks exactly like one without the ears, has been with The Who for donkey's. The auxiliary, woolly-hatted guitarist turns out to be Townshend's own brother Simon. The drummer, the boyish Zak Starkey (Mrs Starr must be a looker, is all I'm saying) is a safe pair of hands, in that he doesn't break into the Tannoy booth at Golders Green station and announce "All Jews line up to be gassed" in a bad German accent, play pranks involving fertiliser bombs, starting pistols, pantomime horses, pigs' heads and piranhas (see Tony Fletcher's Dear Boy: The Life Of Keith Moon for the lowdown), or detonate 10 times the recommended amount of flash powder next to Townshend's head (a Moon stunt which the guitarist blames for his partial deafness).

But all eyes, tonight more than ever, are on Pete Townshend, who plays with all the pent-up sexual energy, violence and abandon of a juvenile. There's a massive cheer the first time he executes a right-arm windmill.

"Who Are You", the first Who song I ever heard, is also the first song we hear tonight. They follow it with "Can't Explain", its uptight, kinetic intro remaining one of rock's most exhilarating, and the clever (albeit controversial, with its "I look all white but my dad is black") "Substitute". And against all odds, it's absolutely thrilling.

The slogan "hope I die before I get old" was always a hostage to fortune, and has been thrown back in Townshend and Daltrey's faces countless times. The dinosaur-culling days of punk had their place, but there's something to treasure in the fact that we're all past that (if not past it) now, and can enjoy watching middle-aged men, both wearing hearing aids and fully aware of the ridiculousness of the situation, doing what they're (still) good at.

Standing in front of minimal backline of small Fender amps on a low stage (like it's 1965), Daltrey makes a chummy speech - he's got a cold but he's gonna "give it all" - but he's eclipsed when a simple "thanks for coming" from Townshend nearly brings the house down. After three songs, Twickenham's most famous member of the sex offenders' register has gained the confidence to take the shades off that spoon-reflected face, and look us in the eyes.

Daltrey announces their intention to "stay in the safety zone" for the first section of the show (before a truncated Tommy medley), and it's a hits set, including "The Kids Are Alright" (with the telling added line "my body's broken, my eyes can't see, my ears can't hear... but I'm still me"), the fist-biting anger of "You Better You Bet" (has there ever been a more unequivocally male band than The Who?), "Teenage Wasteland" (another song whose pomposity seemed ill-matched with the pill-popping, beach-fighting, alley-shagging youths in Quadrophenia), "5.15", and inevitably, "My Generation", incorporating "Old Red Wine", a new song dedicated to Entwistle.

By playing a gig like this, The Who are tacitly endorsing the funding by voluntary charity of that which should be funded from compulsory taxation. This is no great surprise: their politics were never exactly red in hue, as one of tonight's selections reminds us. Written 30 years later, "Won't Get Fooled Again", would have been fair comment ("and the party on the Left is now the party on the Right...), but in 1970 it was a depressingly conservative statement. We always knew Daltrey was a trout-farming landowner waiting to happen. What became of Townshend, however, nobody could ever have guessed.