The 'Orrible 'Oo back in action with patchy but promising opener for a week-long series of Teenage Cancer Trust benefit concerts

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The Who

THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL, LONDON

MONDAY MARCH 8, 2004

This was meant to be The Who’s first UK shows since Entwistle’s death and Townshend’s arrest. But three dates the previous week, in the more intimate surrounds of The Forum in Kentish Town, had got the ball rolling. The group played the same set each night, but at least Townshend’s unease about public reactions was assuaged.

It would have been great if tonight’s show, the opening of a week-long series benefiting the Teenage Cancer Trust, had shown The Who lifting their game even higher, changing the set around and setting off a few unexpected firecrackers. It wasn’t to be?but with the stage ringed in blue lights (did someone call the Old Bill?) and Pete Prada’d up to the nines in collarless jacket and Bono wraparounds, the psych-rock chords of “Who Are You?” make a great opener, charged with pertinent drama. However, as Daltrey lays into the self-excoriating “Who the fuck are you?” rant (Travis Bickle reborn as a belligerent rock-star lush), he looks wretched up on the screen?yellow pallor, face strained. Soon he admits he’s nursing a rotten cold.

By the end of the two-and-a-half-hour show, his voice has been stretched to its limit?in fact, is almost gone?but he does give it his best shot. On paper, playing the same set for the fourth time in two weeks hardly seems adventurous. But The Who don’t play safe?”Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” and “Baba O’Riley”, with its furious “teenage wasteland” refrain now a mission statement for the cancer charity?don’t present a comfort zone. Particularly impressive are the Quadrophenia selections. “5.15” is brutal but defiant, “The Sea And The Sand” an astonishing collision of venom, spiritual loss and emotional destitution, while “Love Reign O’er Me” offers deliverance in a blazing symphony of humbled machismo.

The Who have always been about sonic warfare. Zak Starkey and the resolute Pino Paladino are admirable replacements for Moon and Entwistle, but the focus now inevitably falls more keenly than ever on the contradictory, often conflicting, rock’n’roll dynamic between Roger as Townshend’s extrovert alter ego and Pete’s troubled introspection.

They give good banter, too. Daltrey tells the audience he’s only been able to appear because his doctor filled him full of drugs. “It’s all about you, isn’t it? Roger fucking Daltrey. I’ve got a very sore finger but I didn’t take any drugs,” fumes the guitarist.

“Yeah, but you’ve had your share in the past,” shoots back Daltrey.

The good news is that their first new songs in over 20 years are miles better than anything on 1982’s turgid It’s Hard. The elegiac, Elvis-quoting “Real Good Looking Boy” finds spiritual transcendence through narcissism, aptly for a group whose first record was “I’m The Face”, and “Old Red Wine” is a part-tender, part-angry farewell to Entwistle. Near the end, Daltrey’s remedies lose their strength. So it’s fortunate the closing excerpt from Tommy is as much a focus for Townshend’s lead guitar as Roger’s vocals.

“See Me, Feel Me” and “Amazing Journey” have Pete in lean, mean and lethal form. He may have been a fool, but what’s done is done. Now Townshend and The Who Mk II are rock’n’roll warriors back in the ring. Be ready for the knockout punch.