Ah, Tommy. If rock operas had to be born – and they did – it’s only fitting that they should enter the arena courtesy of one of the genre’s true standout bands, and feature a character that’s lived a life that can only be described as monumentally fucked up. Tommy’s early experiences lead to such psychological scaring that he becomes blind, deaf and mute (hence that classic line in ‘Pinball Wizard’). He later recovers, forms a seemingly unintentional cult, and tells his supporters to mutilate themselves in order to achieve the same sense-free enlightenment he’s experienced. Eventually, his numerous followers lose the plot and turn on him. Of course, Tommy is entirely fictional, but the fact that such a story – and we’ve covered only a fraction of it in that summary – went on to inspire the likes of Pink Floyd tells you everything you need to know about the kind of musical and cultural landmark it was.
Of course Roger Daltrey is not, as such, The Who. With John Entwistle having long since passed away and Pete Townsend choosing the day after the Marlay Park concert to announce the end of his touring hiatus, though, the aging Daltrey and the five-piece supporting band he assembled from “over 60 auditions” are the best we can hope for. Daltrey, to be fair to him, certainly doesn’t turn in the toned down performance you might expect from a 67 year old. From the second he struts on stage and whips out the anthemic ‘I Can See For Miles’ as an opener, it’s clear that he still loves being on stage, swaggering, leering and pulling out his whirling microphone trick for every heaving crescendo. Before we even get to the insanity of Tommy, there’s a track dedicated to drunken collaborations with The Chieftans and a quick rundown of the benefit of the new band: they can perform the high-pitched corners of the set that Townsend couldn’t quite reach. He demolished his vocals on a night out and, apparently, he doesn’t want to talk about.
Let’s face it, Tommy doesn’t have the same affect unless played in full. The disjointed musical and lyrical themes make a whole lot more sense when performed from start to finish, and that’s something The Who never did as a band. Tonight Daltrey takes up the baton against a backdrop of pure psychedelica. From the initial battle to conceive and birth of our screwed up central character, all the way through the breaking of the stitches that symbolically hold his eyes closed, Tommy’s twisting storyline is played out against a tie-dye-colourful backing video. Daltrey and co. play up to the moments, too, be they the dark undertones of ‘Acid Queen’ or the haunting, sporadic refrains of ‘Tommy Can You Hear Me?’ ‘Pinball Wizard’ and the abrupt ‘Tommy’s Holiday Camp’ are perhaps the frantic, fist-pumping highlights.
Daltrey’s voice might be struggling at times, but when you have the likes of ‘Baba O’Riley’, ‘Who Are You’, ‘My Generation’ and ‘The Kids Are Alright’ in your back catalogue it’s pretty easy to overlook the odd vocal mis-step. All are whipped out after Tommy reaches its dramatic finale, and all of a sudden the completion of the Beatles/ Stone trilogy with The Who – as Rolling Stone once suggested – doesn’t seem all that farfetched. At 39 songs and well over two hours in length, tonight’s performance recalls the finest moments of a band that by rights should long since have been retired. When Daltrey’s still this good, though, and still gives so much more than just what it would take to get by, who are we to argue?