The Who: Tommy at the Royal Albert Hall 2017 boasts a number of distinctions, not the least of which is that it maintains deservedly elevated of homage to one of the greatest bodies of work in rock history. While it is not the awe-inspiring work of the group at their pinnacle (see Live at the Isle of Wight 1970), it is not the work of a veteran band ravaged by time exerting a futile effort to reclaim past glories
In its release on DVD, Blu-ray, 2-CD, 3-LP, digital video and digital audio, the various sets represent a composite presentation taken from a pair of shows in the spring of 2017, conducted at the prestigious London venue, this hundredth performance overall on behalf of the Teenage Cancer Trust set up by vocalist Roger Daltrey and guitarist/vocalist /composer Pete Townshend is. This pair of performances, in fact, represent the first time the Who has offered the so-called ‘rock opera’ in its entirety because, in the past, certain numbers such as “Cousin Kevin,” have been excluded for the sake of pacing the show.
The concert in its entirety featured Tommy and an extended encore comprised of classic Who numbers from various points in their history, such as “I Can See for Miles” and “Who Are You.” And the video configurations include bonuses featuring a behind-the-scenes interview segment (largely devoted to the charity endeavor) and the screen animations like those utilized on a real-time rear-of-stage screen for a pair of tunes with accompanying live performance sound. In hearing this audio alone, it also becomes clear that, in the context of the larger work, placement of long enduring staples of the evolving group’s repertoire, like “Pinball Wizard,” and the climax of “We’re Not Gonna Take It”/”See Me Feel Me,” not only retain their majesty, but gain some.
While Tommy remains a signature work of the Who to this day, and rightly so, its ambition and execution has to some degree been eclipsed in recent years as Townshend’s other masterwork, Quadrophenia, (from which comes the encore inclusion here “Love Reign O’er Me”), has risen in estimation. Nevertheless, there is no doubt more than a few pictured in the audience, notwithstanding the range of age of these attendees, who have never seen the complete piece performed live since the band itself hasn’t done it since 1989.
The inherent drama remains in the story of the deaf, dumb and blind boy, a sensation originally rooted in the way this music channeled the latent violence of the original four-man lineup of the Who. Intrinsically theatrical as that presentation was, the dynamics of the current show become amplified by striking stage production the likes of which might well have been redundant in the quartet’s hey-day; it’s no small accomplishment for director Chris Rule to capture so much of the density of the graphic content, comprised of lighting effects and projection images from the original album art plus animation. Hints of the enhanced definition are readily apparent in the cover art of the physical packages), while his panoramic shots of the venue itself, from a variety of angles, are near-breathtaking as well.
As so vividly captured in recent years on Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 2004 and The Who in Hyde Park, neither Daltrey nor Townshend strain to come off as they once were at that stage of their career preserved in the Woodstock film. No longer the leonine likes of his rock god persona, the former professes having learned to sing performing Tommy and those lessons stand him in good stead for the duration of the opera and into equally challenging material like “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” As for Townshend, the acceptance of his stage in life in recent years has clearly liberated him: none of his actions come off calculated or self-conscious, from the trademark windmilling of his instrument to any other leaping about the stage. As a result, his lighthearted delight is all too obvious during the unsung chestnut “Join Together”.
The expanded lineup of instrumentalists accompanying the two principals likewise makes no attempt to recreate the wild abandon of the group when John Entwistle and Keith Moon were alive. Yet the five musicians, including Townshend’s younger brother Simon, nonetheless achieve other more reasonable ends under the aegis of musical director and keyboardist/vocalist Frank Simes, that is, replicating the layering of multiple guitars and keyboards of the original Who recordings. And drummer Zak Starkey contributes mightily by injecting palpable intensity into the ensemble’s stage presence as well as its musicianship: within the non-stop flailing of his kit, he skillfully combines power and precision.
As a result, rather than see any drop-off in the recognition or durability of Tommy, or other famous selections from Who’s Next, like “Baba O’Riley” or “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” those songs continue to be musically powerful and topically relevant. Which makes its only fitting Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and the rest of their entourage (including the technical crew), exhibit a definite sense of pride as they do rightful justice to an estimable legacy throughout The Who: Tommy at the Royal Albert Hall 2017.