Review Summary: The original Who return and bring some guests along with them for this gig. Pete, Roger, and band play it straight and true and the guests make things "interesting". Explosive and powerful its almost Leeds all over again. If not exactly.
Having broke up in 1982 after nearly two decades of making music together and reuniting as a four piece unit (plus keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick) onstage since then only once for a 1985 performance at the Ethiopian charity gig Live Aid, The Who's 2000 reunion and subsequent tour came as a bit of a shock to even the most seasoned Who fan near and far. Sure the band saw much action in 1989 for the 25th Anniversary/Tommy 20th Anniversary world tour, and again in 1996 for a tour which would see the band take a full performance of the 1973 album Quadrophenia to it's fans. But these shows were something of a case of The Who/not The Who, for all intents and purposes. With guitarist Pete Townshend at risk of permanently losing his hearing and the band wanting to deliver the goods as strong as ever, when The Who hit the road for these two tours they did it not as a four piece band as in the past, but with a large band which included a trio of back up singers, a horn section, a percussionist, a second keyboard player, and (gasp) a lead guitar player to play electric guitar, as Pete was limited to playing acoustic guitar on account of the risk to his hearing. Actively seeking a solution to this before and during the 1989 tour, he came across the Eric Clapton Signature Stratocaster by Fender and remarkably found it could produce a tone which apparently would not damage his hearing further. Taking no risks, though, on both the '89 and '96 tour he limited himself to playing it just for the encores or a few choice songs here and there, and no more. Yes, he strummed the hell out of his acoustic, playing it loud and with a fury that only musicians like Townshend seem able to muster at will. But still, it just wasn't the same. What was essentially a power trio of musicians onstage (with a singer, of course) for so many years who sounded like fifty, was now upwards of twelve musicians onstage that sounded like, well, twelve musicians playing Who songs. As said before, a firm case of The Who/not The Who.
So when I first came upon this disc I did so with a bit of reservation. With most of this bands available live material over twenty years old, and it's best live material well past that, along with the fact they hadn't shared a stage as a four piece in over 15 years before this recording was released, I had my doubts about a rock n roll band whose members are middle age (to say the least) and whose guitar player is nearly deaf getting back together for another round of rock n roll. Especially when that rock n roll requires you to not just play it, but play it like The Who. Just who were these old geezers and why did they want to ruin a great legacy by trying to do it all by themselves again? Certainly they should at least get some help for Pete. All that windmilling can take a lot out of a senior citizen. Someone call the big band.
Well as it turns out us in the doubters section had little to worry about. The Who, Live At The Royal Albert Hall (with Bonus Disc) is a 28 song magnum opus through some of this bands better known and best loved material. Spanning two discs recorded in 2000 and a more recent bonus disc recorded in 2003 featuring four songs that prominently display the talents of John Entwhistle which was added after his death, The Who show old fans and new, young and old, that the fire is still there and that on rare occasion it burns bright. This recording, which catches the band at the height of their power once more, is strong evidence of that.
Disc one kicks off in fine fashion with the foursome (plus Bundrick on keyboards, as mentioned earlier) tearing into a spirited rendition of the old pop/rock classic "I Can't Explain", and it's clear from the outset not much has changed in energy and form for this live rock outfit since their '60's and '70's heyday. Following quickly after is an equally compelling rendition of "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" that features the bass of John Entwhistle and the drums of Zak Starkey leading the way, with Townshend taking a bit of a back seat as drummer and bass man play off one another. And while it is clear from the start the sound of the band has changed over the years, the soul of the band has not. And that is very good news for those who appreciate good live rock n roll.
After a typically serviceable rendition of 'Pinball Wizard" and the little heard Lifehouse track 'Relay", the band move into the first real highlights of the night with an explosive version of 'My Wife" featuring bassist John Entwhistle on lead vocals with Roger helping his old buddy out when he needs it. The band plows and plunders through this track, all power chords from Pete and thundering bass from John. It's a visceral experience listening to this track at volume, and it hit's in an almost physical way, if not quite like it used to 30 years ago. Following this with a great version of the fan/band favorite "The Kids Are Alright", which once again puts Pete Townshend's ability with a pop hook on great display and features a nice, nostalgic narrative by the bandleader at the bridge about aging gracefully and respecting youth, this is clearly a man, an artist, and a band at a different place then before, and acceptance of this is noted. Luckily for music fans, though, onstage the song remains for the most part the same.
Wrapping up disc one, The Who lay into a typically strong performance of "Bargain" (selling those Nissans) with Roger turning in a powerful and passionate vocal performance before the band get a bit of a breather with the long and drawn out 'Magic Bus", which sees the audience do half the work with the typical call back chorus of "MAGIC BUS" that is familiar to anyone who is also familiar with the band. An explosive and hard hitting "Who Are You" follows with John "Rabbit" Bundrick adding nimble piano touches to offset all the noise, and that leads squarely into an outstanding version of Baba 'O Riley which features Pete emphatically shouting **** off"! into the mic at the bridge, and joined by violinist Roger Kennedy to close the song out. Sadly, the album changes direction after this great opening disc, this being a benefit show, and the next disc makes that apparent with somewhat mixed results, as a number of "special" guests make an appearance to do some good and honor The Who all at once. The results, as stated before, are lacking in some instances.
The second disc gets off to a nice enough start (following the order of the show) with two solo acoustic numbers by Townshend and a third where he is joined by The Jam's Paul Weller. That band owing more then a little debt to the legacy of The Who. Pete tackles the fan fave of "Drowned" from the 1973 album Quadrophenia with confident and spirited ease, attacking his acoustic instrument like acoustic instruments in rock are rarely attacked and passionately spitting out the pained lyrics of spiritual searching and acceptance. Following this with the tender and thoughtful "Heart To Hang Onto" from the 1974 solo" album "Rough Mix" he made with the Small Face's Ronnie Lane, and the first guest performer of the night is ready to take the stage.
And this is where the album takes a turn. While Paul Weller does a nice enough job in this two man, two guitar acoustic setting for the early Who song "So Sad About Us", harmonizing with Pete effortlessly, other guest performers don't fare quite as well on a number of Who standards. Luckily for the listener non guest performances are also featured on disc two, but the flow of the set is broken by the performances nonetheless. If the guest performances were acceptable, this portion of the album may of worked better, but as it is disc two winds up a curious hit and miss of what could have been.
Guest number two is Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam taking a stab at the Who classic "I'm One". And while Eddie is a life long Who fanatic and a good friend of Pete's, he serves this somewhat rarely performed song by the band quite poorly and gives it the "I have to take a poo" treatment, as he sings it in a constipated, angst ridden vocal style and delivery throughout. Even more unlucky is the hapless (gasp) Bryan Adams sitting in for a turn on lead vocals for "Behind Blue Eyes". Adams sinks this song in one breath with his tepid, underwhelming vocals that even the musical prowess of a band such as The Who can't overcome, and that sorry bloke from the Stereophomics doesn't fare much better with the cliched British whine he lends the hard hitting "Substitute". Lucikily for us it's not all bad news, as the band alone rips through versions of "You Better You Bet", "5:15", "The Real Me" and "My Generation" with ferocious energy before wrapping things up with a "everyone onstage" rendition of "See Me, Feel Me/Listening To You". Before this close it's also fair to note Vedder redeems himself nicely from the "I'm One" fiasco with a nice turn sharing vocals with Roger Daltrey on a loose and swinging version of "Let's See Action", and Noel Gallager of Oasis fame turns in some nice lead guitar work for a rock solid rendition of "Won't Get Fooled Again". Still, along with the solo numbers that begin disc two and considering the strength of this performance with just the band onstage, it leaves the listener longing for more of The Who and less of The Who with guest singers.
As if realizing this very thing, luckily in 2003 after considering the death of John Entwhistle the band added a third disc of explosive material that is among the best recorded with John before his demise. "I'm Free", "Young Man Blues" Summertime Blues" and "I Don't Even Know Myself", taken from completely different shows, kick and scream and careen like a freight train running down the tracks, and if you close your eyes and imagine a little, you'd swear it was Leeds University all over again.
If not quite. This reviewer does not intend to mislead you. This is not The Who of 30 years ago. The sound is not as raw, rough, or unpredictable. Townshends guitar is not as feedback laden, Daltrey has lost a little off the top, bassist John Entwhistle has a more refined sound and no longer has Keith Moon to play off of (as good as Zak Starkey is) and of course the addition of Bundrick on keyboards is a change from the live recordings released by The Who in there past (with the exception of the weak, horribly recorded "Who's Last"). But nor is it the "big band" Who described at the beginning of this review. Make no mistake, this is a loud, energetic, explosive, and completely "Who" recording. A little bit older, a bit wiser, perhaps, but no less a compelling live act then in the heyday of their youth. When this band is onstage make no mistake, on that night they are still the best live act on any stage anywhere in the world. This record puts that fact on display in no uncertain terms and stands rightly alongside any of their very best live recordings. Now if we can just have a word about those guest singers.