While Roger Daltrey’s work in organising the annual Teenage Cancer Trust concerts should never go unheralded, the most intriguing night in this year’s programme was his own: the billing was simply “Roger Daltrey Plays 'Tommy’”, suggesting that he would perform the Who’s landmark rock opera from 1969, but without the band’s only other surviving member, Pete Townshend, their guitarist and author of this complex and much-debated work.
As the throng of faithful old mods huddled together inside the Albert Hall’s illustrious goldfish-bowl, many speculated on the glaring absence of Who branding. In a recent interview, Townshend had bemoaned the effects of a lifetime’s worth of rock gigging on his joints, and his hearing. So was this the end, finally, without fanfare, of the mighty Who?
On the plus side, renditions of “Tommy”, from Ken Russell’s lurid 1975 movie version through to latterday stage productions, have always featured celebrity cameos — Oliver Reed, Elton John, Ringo Starr, even the former Dr Who Jon Pertwee. One imagined, given Daltrey’s skill at pulling strings on behalf of his charity, that tonight’s star count would be high.
When the singer and his band emerged to rattle through Townshend’s “Overture”, there was a near-audible groan of disappointment at the absence of star players. Instead there was a Los Angeles session team, who included Townshend’s younger brother, Simon, on acoustic guitar and vocals, and a lead guitarist with Melvyn Bragg’s hair.
While Daltrey himself was in final fettle, growling out the familiar narrative of the deaf, dumb and blind kid whose proficiency at pinball leads him to become a messianic cult leader, “Tommy”’s shortcomings became all too apparent. It meanders for minutes at a time, until the clanging riff to “Amazing Journey”, say, or the recurrent “see me, feel me” melodic strand, arrives to perk things up. Half an hour in, pretty much anyone in the hall would have donated next month’s mortgage payment to the TCT for some kind of wow factor.
Then, bafflingly, Pete Townshend shuffled on stage, in dark suit and with acoustic guitar, to deliver “The Acid Queen” — the Tina Turner role in Russell’s movie . Suddenly, the camera phones were blazing, and the audience was alive, air-guitaring to “Pinball Wizard”, “I’m Free” and the glorious “Listening to you” finale. Overall, though, it was obvious why the Who, in latter years, have “done 'Tommy’” via a 10-minute medley in their live sets.
Thereafter, Daltrey bantered about last-minute rehearsals, presumably explaining the evening’s non-Whoness. There followed two Daltrey solo numbers, but also “Pictures of Lily”, “I Can See For Miles”, “Young Man Blues” and “Baba O’Riley”, for which Townshend returned, windmilling gamely, but visibly far from match fit. It was, overall, a rollercoaster show