There was an elegiac quality to the Who's performance of Quadrophenia at London's Royal Albert Hall last night, which marked the 10th anniversary of benefit shows in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust charity. Roger Daltrey, the prime mover behind the benefit, has said that this is the last time the Who will stage their 1973 rock opera (they first toured it in 1996), and Pete Townshend, who is suffering from severe tinnitus, warned that if the show went badly he would have to retire from live performance all together (read more on his condition here). The concert's wildly enthusiastic reception should at least delay that decision for a while longer.
Looking back to the heady summer of 1964, when warring mods and rockers turned British seaside resorts into battlegrounds, Quadrophenia was steeped in nostalgia from the start, and now the album itself is a period piece from a time when it briefly seemed as if any ambitious band might be expected to turn its hand to a rock opera. These days rock fans get their narrative kicks from hit-packed jukebox musicals rather than dense album-length dramas: not even the Who-loving Green Day are willing to go quite this far.
Last night's show suggested a few reasons why. For one thing, it is logistically demanding: the six-man band (with Pino Palladino and Zak Starkey replacing the late John Entwistle and Keith Moon) was augmented by a brass section, two string players and two surprise guest vocalists, Eddie Vedder and Kasabian frontman Tom Meighan. For another, it requires nothing less than total conviction. The narrative is so overwrought, even sometimes borderline comical, that any lapse in intensity would have tipped it into Spinal Tap territory.
Daltrey and Townshend may now be bespectacled sexagenarians, but they retain a slashing vigor. The singer still swung his mike cord like a bolas while the guitarist retained his trademark move of raising his arm high above his head before bringing it crashing down on his guitar strings. His playing was virtuosic, moving, on "5:15" between bluesy licks, shredding solos and savage power chords, but also, more crucially, fueled by an enduring rage. The climactic one-two punch of "The Rock" and "Love Reign O'er Me" was drama worthy of this storied, 19th century venue.
The Who's star reinforcements held nothing back either. A leonine Vedder conducted a heavweight duet with Daltrey on "The Punk and the Godfather"; Meighan gamely threw himself into the album's least convincing song, "Bell Boy" by wearing a bellhop's uniform and ferrying luggage with such am-dram dedication that he seemed to be daring the audience to laugh. The three vocalists, each representing different musical eras, convened in an ad hoc supergroup on "I've Had Enough." Only the poorly acted filmed inserts, broadcast on a screen above the stage, risked making the whole project appear cumbersome. But throughout the night, Quadrophenia's conceptual excess was anchored by its sheer physical power. Ultimately, none of the album's ambitious narrative techniques proved quite as eloquent as a single blast from Townshend's guitar.
"I Am the Sea"
"The Real Me"
"Cut My Hair"
"The Punk and the Godfather" (with Eddie Vedder)
"The Dirty Jobs"
"Is It in My Head?"
"I've Had Enough" (with Eddie Vedder and Tom Meighan)
"Sea and Sand" (with Eddie Vedder and Tom Meighan)
"Drowned" (Townshend solo)
"Bell Boy" (with Tom Meighan)
"Love, Reign O'er Me"