The Who may have at least half failed in their mission statement to die before they got old, but a 50th anniversary is an extraordinary achievement. So it is a good moment to reflect on what a seminal band they were on several levels, from being standard bearers of the original ‘British invasion’, to Pete Townshend developing rock as a serious performance art form through his rock operas, to making the transition from sixties pop stars to seventies rock giants, complete with hell raising behaviour.
The anniversary was an opportunity to celebrate this legacy, and where there is muck there is brass so it has been accompanied by a new 50th anniversary themed compilation album and tour. 50 is something of an exaggeration – as at this show (one of two rescheduled from when Roger Daltrey lost his voice before Christmas) not a single song dated later than 1978 was played.
On the last occasion I saw them in 2007, they were heavily promoting their new album Endless Wire but this time was airbrushed out of history in favour of a Greatest Hits set, and I can’t pretend to have been sad about that.
Arena shows rely heavily on effective visuals to compensate for the lack of intimacy and in that respect this show was faultless. The stage set was beautifully presented with a very colourful and well put together video backdrop ranging from album artwork and mod themed graphics to images of the band in their heyday.
However one of the downsides of an Arena show is the corporate atmosphere and such are the comfortable plush seats at the 02 that people in our block stayed seated the whole way through.
It was full of the ‘one gig a year’ crowd and I felt sorry for a chap to our left, who had probably been looking forward to the show for weeks to escape his humdrum suburban existence and relive his salad days, but had dragged along a bored looking wife and two contemptuous teenage kids who were on their smartphones the whole of the show.
Opening with ‘I Can’t Explain’ and ‘Substitute’, a blue-shirted Roger Daltrey sounded in good voice considering his age, and after a brief diversion in ‘The Seeker’ and an extended ‘Who Are You’ the set reverted to a very rough chronological order with the sixties singles – ‘The Kids Are Alright’ featured great video footage of parka-clad mods riding out of London, and it was great to hear the likes of ‘I Can See For Miles’ and ‘Pictures Of Lily’ as well as a lesser-known gem in ‘So Sad About Us’.
One of the features of this tour was that, almost curating his own legacy, Pete Townshend introduced the story behind many songs, while in general the affectionate sparring between songs between him and Roger was that of a bickering old couple.
The days of the Who as a four piece are long gone as the sound was flushed out by a trio of keyboard players who also provided backing vocals and Pete’s brother Simon on second guitar. Nevertheless they still captured the jagged rawness that distinguished the Who, in particular with Zak Starkey doing a great job in honouring the distinctive style of Keith Moon.
Moving into the megalithic rock years ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ got the biggest reaction yet,’ Join Together’ was dedicated by Roger to the fans and followed by a couple of numbers from Quadrophenia, one with Pete singing lead and ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ proving suitably epic, leading to something of a standing ovation.
The Who diehards, of which I cannot claim to be one, were satisfied by a rare airing of ‘Slip Kid’ and the mini opera of ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’, leading appropriately into a suite of songs form ‘Tommy’. By the time of ‘Pinball Wizard’ and the medley of ‘See Me Feel Me’ and an anthemic ‘Listening To You’ we were firmly into greatest hit territory.
Storming versions of ‘Baba O’Riley’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ wrapped up the set though I was frustrated not more people were standing up to rock out. They never went off for an encore as such but after Pete introduced the band they went on a ‘Magic Bus’ ride, thankfully shorter than it has been on some occasions, with Roger playing the harmonica.
However the crowd seemed surprised to then see the house lights go up for good, even though we had been given a generous 2 hour plus set.
I highly doubt there will be a Who Hits 60, so with last chances to see them running out this was a history of their peak years to savour. Despite my reservations over the atmosphere, the set choice and stage show could not have been a better demonstration of the ‘Oo’s legacy.
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
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