The Who review, Royal Albert Hall: Sixties legends prove themselves the most hardy and unworn act of their era

Fumbled microphone twirls and malfunctioning hearing aids only add to the charm of a momentous, turbo-charged set for the Teenage Cancer Trust

Mark Beaumont
Tuesday 19 March 2024 15:11 GMT
Roger Daltrey doesn't think Brexit will affect the music industry

“I didn’t know we were going to be playing Tommy,” Pete Townshend gripes at his sole remaining Who bandmate Roger Daltrey, bickering over the setlist like two old dears over a bingo bar tab. “I’ve got a list, but I can’t see it,” Daltrey replies, more genial grandpa than golden god at 80. As Daltrey fumbles the odd microphone twirl and Townshend misses his guitar entirely mid-windmill and complains that someone in the audience is remotely adjusting his app-controlled hearing aids, you wouldn’t trust The Who with their own pension books, let alone a computerised cold call.

Rock history, though, is safe in their hands. When these enduring Sixties legends (Townshend: “I wrote all this s*** 50 years ago”; Daltrey: “F*** off!”) start playing their eighth show for the Teenage Cancer Trust – the annual week of gigs at the Albert Hall that Daltrey has been organising for 24 years – it’s instantly apparent that with age has come supreme power. After Daltrey has double-tambourined his way through a deceptively spritely “I Can’t Explain”, a full orchestra strikes up the tune-hopping “Overture” medley from Tommy and the effect is nothing short of momentous. It’s the introduction to a 45-minute compilation of the 1969 rock opera album’s finest moments.

With strings scything stage right and timpani crashing away on the balcony, we get the full impact of band and venue combined. It’s easily the best-sounding gig this reviewer has heard in decades, and bombastic almost to the point of tectonic fracture. “Sparks” comes on like a methamphetamine Prom. The Formula One guitar intro to “Pinball Wizard” gets a 12-cylinder trumpet turbo charge. Empires have fallen more quietly than the grandiose climax of “We’re Not Gonna Take It”.

The Tommy section complete – plus an elephantine “Who Are You” and a run-through of their political funk foray “Eminence Front” – the orchestra depart while the band play a looser Greatest Hits segment. And, in their 60th year and two men down, they prove themselves the most hardy and unworn act of their era. “Substitute” and “The Kids Are Alright” remain lithe and sparkling; “My Generation” has evolved into a slab of supercharged skiffle. But, in an age when many classic rock voices are disintegrating by the hour, convincing us every Glastonbury that our TV speakers are suddenly knackered, the real test comes towards the end of a barnstorming “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (insert your own deflated Brexit gag here). Daltrey’s voice has seemed un-weathered throughout, but as the keyboards build their spiralling electronic tension and the spotlight falls, the audience holds its breath for the song’s primal climactic howl like it’s the sudden death World Cup penalty shoot-out of high notes. To euphoric, venue-wide relief, Daltrey still rips your spine from your back at a thousand paces.

For all the intricate twists, twiddles and prog-inventing diversions in their more complex pieces, The Who remain the most punchy and direct act of their vintage. There’s no dryly self-indulgent displays of musicianship and they don’t try to push 2019’s Who album. As a coda to their recent The Who Hits Back! tour, the show neatly collates the band’s greatest achievements, sandwiching timeless singles between chunks of rock opera excess. To which end, the orchestra returns for a final section of mostly Quadrophenia songs: “5:15” hammers down the tracks, “Love, Reign o’er Me” and “Baba O’Riley” vie to out-epic each other, and “The Rock” plays out to footage of historical tragedies spanning the band’s six decades – Vietnam, Lennon, Thatcher. This is Daltrey’s final year of curating the Teenage Cancer Trust events, and on this showing – to borrow a phrase from some peers he’d blow off any stage – he couldn’t be going out with a bigger bang.

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