One of the all-time classic rock and roll albums got a special treatment on Saturday Night September 9th as Pete Townshend and a huge host of friends brought Classic Quadrophenia to the New York Metropolitan Opera House. Aging rockers and young fans alike were dressed to the nines (or maybe broke out ragged concert t-shirts) as the sold-out, gorgeous venue, filled up for unique night of music.
Quadrophenia is The Who and Townshend’s crowning achievement. Dealing with the personalities of the band and himself, Townshend tackled isolationism, false heroes, a bleak future and a mundane present while specifically detailing the English Mod scene and yet somehow managed to speak to anyone who has ever been a teenager. Musically the double album has textured instrumental passages mixed with blistering hard rockers, acoustic introspective odes and soaring numbers that scream out to the heavens. On record it is a masterpiece.
However, performing it live has raised issues for Townshend and the band. Whether with the classic original Who lineup (1973-1974) or subsequent tours with varying levels of extra musicians on hand (1996 or 2012-13) things never progressed smoothly (sound issues in the seventies and odd video interludes later on). The issues do not end with this live reworking of the album, they have evolved.
It is clear Townshend along with his partner and composer Rachel Fuller have lovingly constructed the score and on this night the music fit the grand hall as lush swells and crashes of the ocean (which is such a vital part of the album) all rang out beautifully. Performed by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and The London Oriana Choir there were layers of strings, vocals and pomp to all the circumstances while Townshend has tapped Britain’s leading tenor Alfie Boe to sing the main vocals (aided by Billy Idol for the Ace Face lines and Townsend himself). Boe fills in for an aging Roger Daltrey, singing the character of Jimmy, and this is where things fail to lineup.
Boe is a world class vocalist who delivers each line with power, blowing out the highs impressively, but he also steamrolls the lower emotional moments. The frailty, confusion and indecision that Jimmy conveys through the lyrics are brushed away completely. For numbers like the screaming “Dr. Jimmy” or the bombastic closing “Love Reign O’er Me” Boe is a beast, but for nuanced pieces like “Cut My Hair” or “Sea and Sand” there is a disconnect.
The feeling of this performance as a Broadway musical production was enhanced by Townshend himself who dressed up for his “role” singing on “The Dirty Jobs” while Boe was hamming it up with silly dance moves throughout. Quadrophenia is not a solemn record by any stretch but this live interpretation, while musically grandiose, lacked the heart and nuance of the original record.