"You're a long way away," declared Pete Townshend as he walked on stage and surveyed the vast crowd stretching into the distance in London's Hyde Park. "But we will fucking reach you. . ."
Indeed, the fact that last night's Barclaycard Presents British Summer Time festival sold out 65,000 tickets in advance showed that The Who are still reaching as many people as ever. But, as things currently stand, this gig was the last scheduled hometown show on what has been billed as the Who's final major tour. And, while the band is no stranger to "farewell" tours, the show was so steeped in the Who's storied past that, at times, the feeling of something passing into history was almost inescapable.
After a big screen video showcasing the band's 50-plus year career, however, the Who started like a band in a hurry. Townshend was already windmilling his arm over his guitar by the time the second chorus of "I Can't Explain" arrived, singer Roger Daltrey brought an urgent, bluesy feel to "The Seeker" while "Who Are You" sounded as breathless and full of verve as ever.
And if, later on, the band occasionally showed its age – Daltrey starting to dedicate "The Kids Are Alright" to support act Paul Weller, before Townshend stepped in to point out Weller had actually requested "Pictures of Lily" – it was able to laugh it off, safe in the knowledge that plenty of the audience could probably relate to such senior moments. "You're not the bloody Mods," quipped Daltrey at one point, as a chant of "We are the Mods!" went up from the crowd, "You're too old!"
But there was also a large, more youthful contingent watching, keen to experience one of rock & roll's most legendary bands while they still can. Townshend thanked Weller's work with the Jam for re-igniting interest in the original Mods during the Eighties, but many fans were of an even more recent vintage. "I can sense a lot of people don't know this music," said Townshend before an intense version of 1971's "Bargain." "But it's a pleasure to play it to those of you that haven't heard it before."
The band still visited a few of the less familiar corners of its catalog, Townshend happily giving potted histories of several songs as he announced them, although he pointedly described "My Generation" as a song "for people of any age, anytime, anywhere." But it was, inevitably, the band's best-known anthems that inspired the most rapturous reception; "Pinball Wizard" and a dramatic "Baba O'Riley," complete with Daltrey harmonica solo, uniting the generations in a huge singalong.
Before a final, earth-shaking "Won't Get Fooled Again," Townshend paid tribute to his fallen bandmates, bassist Jon Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon, saying he still missed them "terribly" and reminiscing about the latter giving current Who sticksman Zak Starkey a drum kit when Starkey was just 10 years old. "So, in a way, Zak studied at the feet of… well, I won't call him the master," quipped Townshend, in good-natured form all evening. "He studied at the feet of the wanker."
And, as the last powerchord faded, Daltrey and Townshend thanked the crowd for standing by them. "We didn't think we'd last until the end of the week," said Daltrey, saluting the audience, "And here we are, all this time on."
For how much longer, remains to be seen. For now, the Who headline Glastonbury Festival on Sunday, then begin a run of U.S. dates, starting at San Diego Valley View Casino Center September 14.
"I Can't Explain"
"Who Are You"
"The Kids Are Alright"
"Pictures of Lily"
"I Can See for Miles"
"Behind Blue Eyes"
"You Better You Bet"
"Love Reign O'er Me"
"See Me, Feel Me"/"Listening to You"
"Won't Get Fooled Again"