With the pair approaching their ninth decades on planet rock, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry seem intent on seeing out what may be their final live tour with affability and sonic punches. Famously grouchy and often at political loggerheads, the duo have seemingly come to terms with their personas, and combine onstage humour with a rattling setlist that powers through the The Who’s biggest hits.
For this short UK tour, they have enlisted the help of the Heart of England Orchestra. Often a gimmick – orchestras are now hired to provide a sonic platform for everyone from Goldie to Fabio and Grooverider – here it works brilliantly in the first quarter of the show, running through half a dozen songs from 1969 concept album Tommy. From opener Overture there is an immediate impact of horns and strings which continues through the Woodstock-era rockout of Sparks and Acid Queen. Despite the album being one of The Who’s finest and most popular, there is unjustified discontent among the crowd that the band hasn’t kicked things off with any big hits. “Play something we know!” shouts one punter before retreating to his seat. If you’re a fan of The Who but don’t know anything from Tommy then, well, that’s on you. As if responding to the criticism, the band launch into Pinball Wizard, the crowd gets onside and the obligatory smartphones come out to record the moment.
Daltry’s voice turns tender during a heartfelt See Me, Hear Me/Listening to You, and then the singalong beings in earnest with Who Are You. The orchestral section finishes with the Townshend-sung Eminence Front from 1982, a surprising recent addition to the Balearic canon, with DJs across the white island pockmarking their sunset sets with the political synth-driven diatribe. As if on cue, the sky turns peach as the sun sets over Badminton Estate.
As the orchestra exits the stage to leave what Daltry calls the “little band” alone, the humourous bickering between Townshend and Daltry begins. As the singer starts to talk about personal freedoms, Townshend interrupts. “don’t preach Roj. Let’s teach them how it really was to be young, in the old days.” The band duly chops through early hits The Kids Are Alright, Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere and Substitute. The latter’s refrain of “I look pretty young but I’m just back-dated” is particularly fun as the duo approach retirement. They both look like they’re having a good time – Townshend chuckles away before his economical solo on I Can’t Explain, while Daltry grins as he uses his New Balance trainers to stomp out a rhythm during the epic Won’t Get Fooled Again. The two joke about their age, Daltry almost knocking himself out with one of his famous microphone twirls during 5:15, although age really does catch up with them as Townshend genuinely fails to remember the name of the orchestra backing him.
Strangely, the section with the band alone is not as strong as when they have the orchestra behind them, despite featuring more well-known hits. When the orchestra returns for a Quadrophenia section, the power returns to the stage. This is not to decry elderly statesmen’s abilities – both of their voices sound great, with Daltry still able to perform his wild screech at the end of Won’t Get Fooled Again, and Townshend continuing to employ his distinctive windmill guitar action. Surely he must be due a catastrophic rotator cuff injury at some point. The band finishes the show with the crowd favourite Baba O’Reilly, a song which will always sound incredible – even if Daltry does get his singing cues wrong. If this is to be the pair’s final major tour, then they are going out with smiles on their faces and a reminder to the audience of just how many great songs they produced.