Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend have released lots of good live Who DVDs over the last few years. With great titles like Live at Shea Stadium, Quadrophenia Live in London, Live at the Isle of White, and Live in Hyde Park already lining their shelves, do fans really need another concert film?
Well, yes—particularly if said film documents The Who’s first-ever performance of the 1969 rock opera Tommy in its entirety.
For charity, no less.
Now available from Eagle Rock, The Who: Tommy Live at The Royal Albert Hall is a two-and-a-half hour rock and roll spectacle chronicling the debut performance of Townshend’s iconic musical about a messianic but sensory-deprived teenager as rendered in its totality live in April 2017 at the historic London theater The Beatles sang about “A Day in the Life.”
Spearheaded by Daltrey on behalf of the Teenage Cancer Trust, Tommy Live is epic in scope, dynamic in range, and touching to behold even though nearly half a century has passed since 23-year old Townshend—inspired by the spiritual teachings of Indian guru Meher Baba—wrote the concept album’s heady, hallucinogenic material.
Pulling off the big gig was no small feat for the guitar hero, who’d only ever played medleys and montages of Tommy tunes at Who concerts.
“Roger’s done it before, but I’m struggling with it,” admits Townshend backstage.
Pete’s plight isn’t apparent onstage. Joined by Daltrey, brother Simon on auxiliary guitar, and Zak Starkey (Ringo’s son) on drums, Townshend rocks the night away on a gilded Fender Stratocaster, wind-milling through the cinematic, semiautobiographical program with an enthusiasm belying his years. What’s more, given the diversity of the music at hand, Townshend is able to put on a veritable guitar clinic, utilizing string pull-offs, hammer-ons, pick slides, volume swells, and tremolo twists to bring old songs like “It’s a Boy,” “Amazing Journey,” and “Sparks” back to life.
Daltrey (also in his 70s) is no slouch, either. The bespectacled singer has as much grey in his beard as Townshend but belts ‘em out like a thirty-something alt-rocker instead of an over-the-hill Rock Hall of Famer. It’s stunning, really, to behold the vocalist executing his trademark mic twirls and hear him nailing high notes (“Cousin Kevin,” “Go to the Mirror,” “I’m Free”) that would be unreachable for most other cats his age.
Bassist Jon Button locks down the grooves with monster percussionist Starkey throughout the set, energizing “Acid Queen,” “Sensation,” and “Sally Simpson” for the gob-smacked audience. Keyboardists Frank Simes, Loren Gold, and John Corey contribute piano, brass, and string textures on their respective instruments—and chip in on background harmonies. Simon Townshend (who shuffles between 6 and 12-string electric and acoustic guitars) even handles a few lead vocals.
Tommy preceded—and inspired—other noted album-length rock fantasies like Rush’s 2112 and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and the source of that influence shines on film, with LED screens a-flickering and lights a-flashing as the musicians march through the songs and mini-suites, whose motley measures boast hints of folk, skiffle, classical, progressive rock…even pugnacious, three-chord punk. At various points during the main set the RAH looks and feels like a rock and roll cathedral—with the professorial Daltrey and Townshend serving as high priests.
“Tommy broke my shell,” explains Daltrey later on.
“There was something the music did for me, the music and making the film. It was an eye-opener and a humbling experience.”
The legendary front man emphasizes those feelings in his lyrics for the Cancer Trust, whose young constituents probably identify with the alienated title character—a cipher for adolescent detachment in his blindness and muteness—even more so than healthy teens.
“We’ve had lives of privilege, and had so much support from that particular age group,” Daltrey continues.
“Without the support of teenagers, the music just wouldn’t be there.”
The “Pinball Wizard” overture behind them, The Who climax and conclude the show with a batch of other certifiable hits—from early singles “Can’t Explain” and “I Can See for Miles” to Who’s Next anthem “Baba O’Riley” and Quadrophenia standout “Love, Reign O’er Me.”
And again, the septuagenarian rockers astound with their unblemished abilities to sing and scorch their guitars like the English lads they were all those eons ago.
Bonus features include full-length clips of the computer-generated shorts that appear on the big screen during “Acid Queen” and “Pinball Wizard.” There’s also a fascinating—albeit brief—behind-the-scenes documentary of prepping Tommy for the stage: We visit with Daltrey and Townshend at The Arc Warehouse in Wandsorth and Pinewood Studios in London for rehearsals, gaining insight from Who lighting director Tom Kenny. Then we meet Teenage Cancer Trust and RAH execs and employees (Amy Champman, Siobhan Dunn, Paul Munday), who describe Daltrey’s philanthropic work and The Who’s impact on the psychological well-being of their kid clientele.
It was a monumental rock show for a great cause, hosted by a pair of living legends eager to give something back. The memorable April 1st event might’ve ended with “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” but neither Daltrey nor Townshend offered any “Eminence Front” put-ons on this night: This was an authentic, passionate outing, and their sense of purpose translates magnificently on film.