Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 18, 2017)
Often regarded as the Who’s finest album, 1969’s Tommy becomes the focal point of an April 2017 concert. The result shows up here as Tommy: Live at the Royal Albert Hall.
Done as a benefit for the Teenage Cancer Trust, the 25 songs from Tommy become the dominant aspect of the setlist. In the encore, though, we get a sampling of other Who tracks.
For that segment, we find 1965’s “I Can’t Explain” and 1967’s “I Can See For Miles”. We also locate 1971’s “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, 1972’s “Join Together”, 1973’s “Love, Reign O’er Me” and 1978’s “Who Are You”.
That’s a decent sampling of better-known Who songs, but you can find those on most other Who concert releases. The attraction here comes from Tommy, an album guitarist Pete Townshend claims the Who never played in its entirety.
Based on my research, he’s correct – sort of. During the Who’s 1969/1970 tours, they played massive chunks of Tommy and made it the focal point of the shows, but it doesn’t appear they ever played the whole thing.
In addition, the Who’s 1989 “reunion tour” also focused on Tommy to a considerable degree, but they didn’t perform it in its entirety. That’s true even for a special LA show that included almost all of the album – but not quite everything.
Since 1989, the Who occasionally focused on Quadrophenia, as it became the focus of tours in 1996 and 2013. (This release’s promo materials claim the Who toured behind Tommy in 2002, but that’s wrong.)
That emphasis on the 1969 album alone makes the RAH show a special one, and the Who represent Tommy pretty well. Granted, this obviously isn’t the same band that made the album 48 years ago. Original members Keith Moon and John Entwistle are long dead, and neither Townshend nor singer Roger Daltrey boast the performance skills they showed in their youth.
Actually, the most obvious decline comes from Townshend’s vocals. His high-end range has fallen off the face of the earth, so he requires backing guitarist – and brother – Simon Townshend to hit those notes for him.
That said, Pete doesn’t sound bad when he sings – heck, he’s much better than at the 2016 show I attended where he could barely croak through the tunes – and he covers his guitar parts fine. This may not be the fiery Pete of the 1970s, but he does well.
As for Daltrey, he also shows his age, but not to a terrible degree. Daltrey’s voice dropped off fairly significantly over the years, but I believe he got surgery a while back, and that seems to have helped. Again, you won’t get circa 1973 Daltrey from the vocals, and he also suffers from some loss of range, but Roger sounds about as good as he has in decades and covers the songs nicely.
With a professional band behind them, Daltrey and Townshend manage a more than respectable version of Tommy. I admit I’ve never loved that album, as I think 1967’s Sell Out, 1971’s Who’s Next and 1973’s Quadrophenia are all significantly more satisfying.
Still, I can’t quibble with its importance, and I do like the album – but I “just” like it. There’s no passion there for me.
I do respect Tommy and think the concert represents it well. Nothing here stands out as stellar, but the 2017 show offers a solid turn from the Who.
Director Chris Rule shows good restraint. The program lacks any cloying visual affectations, and Rule makes no attempt to turn this into a 123-minute music video.
At the start of the program, we get interview comments from Townshend and Daltrey, and I feared these would occasionally interrupt the concert. That became a nuisance in 2015’s Who Live in Hyde Park product, and since Rule directed it as well, I worried the trend would continue here.
Happily, it doesn’t, so Rule concentrates on the concert. Editing seems fairly sedate, and this allows us to enjoy the show without cheap, tacky attempts to “enliven” the proceeding. Rule lets the Who entertain us all on their own.
How much the concert satisfies you will likely depend on how much you like Tommy, of course. As mentioned, it’s not a favorite of mine, but I think this show provides a solid performance of it.