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The Telegraph, 01-04-2017
The Who embarked on a farewell tour three years ago but are still going strong. They are the band who will not give up. And thank the gods of rock and roll for that.
I saw them four times over the course of their 50th anniversary shows in 2014 and 2015 and got quite sentimental about this ultimate rock band coming to the end of their era, never to be seen or heard in their live element again. But here they were once more, carrying on as if they have no intention of hanging up their power chords.
This week, Roger Daltrey (73) and Pete Townshend (71), could be found at the Royal Albert Hall playing concerts to support Daltrey’s Teenage Cancer Trust charity. They revived their original and maddest rock opera, Tommy, for the occasion.
When the shows were first announced they were billed as an acoustic performance so it was a bit of a surprise to see the two surviving original Who members troop out surrounded by their full six-piece live band.
“Sorry about the acoustic guitar, but if we had stuck to it we’d still be in the rehearsal room,” apologised Daltrey. “Actually, it was my fault,” acknowledged Townshend. “I couldn’t get the acoustic to sound big enough. So I got out this old thing.” He indicated a familiar red and white Stratocaster. “It’ll be OK.”
I think every one of the 5,000 fans in the venue roared with delight. There are few people many of us would rather see behind an electric guitar than Townshend, still windmilling his right arm around and chopping out power chords in his dotage. He had a music stand on stage, though, and was concentrating fiercely throughout.
Tommy is a long, complex, ambitious piece that doesn’t always hang together, switching from glorious uplifting psychedelic anthems to quirkily offbeat narrative links, eccentric dashes of music hall and lots of long, involved instrumental passages.
Despite the impressive LED images over the stage, it would be impossible for anyone unfamiliar with the original to follow the narrative of a deaf, dumb and blind reluctant messiah. Indeed, at times, Townshend himself seemed a bit unsure where it was all going. He has had to drop the keys of most of these songs to accommodate Daltrey’s (and his own) lower, gruffer, ageing voice. Some songs didn’t work in 1969 in their original form and they don’t make any more sense now.
But every time the band hit one of the big anthems full force (Pinball Wizard, I’m Free, We’re Not Gonna Take It), the thrilling power of the band in full flight was overwhelming. There are few more extraordinary passages in rock than Tommy’s concluding See Me / Feel Me coda, with its exultant chorus of “Listening to you, I feel the music”.
When that is pouring off a stage at high volume, with the full force of great musicians locked together, it is impossible not to feel uplifted. The ever chipper Daltrey seemed pleased with the effort, at least. “That was all right,” he noted. “It’s been 20 years since we played it.”
“And after Saturday night, it’ll be another 20 years before I play it again,” Townshend fired back. “Now let’s play a couple of things I actually know.” This presaged a mind-blowing passage of Won’t Get Fooled Again, Baba O’Reilly and Who Are You, three songs that represent some kind of peak of fierce, brilliant, hard rock that has never been equalled.
If The Who’s retirement tour is still going on in another 20 years, I’ll still be going to see them.