The Who

The Eden Project, Cornwall
Tuesday 25th July 2023

Purple lights bathe the stage and crowd, huge biodomes simultaneously pulse with light and immortal, classic sounds fill the air… all this as Roger Daltrey sings the glorious Love Reign O’er Me with such power and passion, backed by a resplendent orchestra – some gig moments, some moments in life, are just so perfect they burn themselves forever into your memory and soul. This unforgettable, transcendent finale to The Who’s incredible Eden Session capped off an astounding gig which totally delighted the packed 6,500 crowd in the middle of the Cornish countryside. When these tickets were advertised I hesitated at the cost until I realised a few things.

Firstly, how often do bands of the legendary calibre of The Who play this far into the deep South West (Never!), and with their two main band members now approaching 80 years of age we really are in the ‘Last Chance Saloon’ (as one friend so poetically put it) – how many more chances will we have to see these guys?

Secondly, this was THE WHO. This is one of THE Bands of my life. I can thank my two older brothers, Kevin and Paul, for introducing me to The Who when I was a youngster. The Who made an instant impact upon me, especially the dazzling, intoxicating thrill and weirdness of the Tommy album, and the band became one of my first musical passions. The three Trimming boys’ musical tastes went their own different ways over the years, but if we were to draw a musical Venn diagram of our respective tastes, you can guarantee that the one band that would be at the centre for all three brothers would indisputably be The Who. Yes, it was going to cost me and my wife an absolute bomb (and we are now fortunate enough to be able to stretch to it), but it just had to be done as this band is an integral part of the soundtrack of my life.

The Who, Pete Townshend - photo by Matthew North MusicI have seen some older bands in recent years and frankly some have faced significant age-related challenges, such as Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull’s vocals or the rather sad spectacle of Phil Collins limited to a chair and with a much diminished voice during Genesis’ final tour – a lifelong love of those bands and respect for the artists accepted the march of the years with a tinge of nostalgic sadness, but there was a definite mental compromise required. I have not seen The Who for many years and I wondered what I would encounter. Obviously, I was not expecting the volcanic unpredictable energy of their early years and I doubted we would see the explosive power of their ’70s rock era, but if I am honest, I was wondering whether I might be similarly disappointed by the effects of Father Time and having to perceive them through a nostalgic, respectful lens. However, I can confirm there was absolutely no need for any such allowances as they came on with an orchestra, Pete Townshend announcing they would “start off slowly… with Tommy“, and immediately launched into the overture from that fantastic and seminal album… and frankly my mind was almost immediately completely blown. The Heart of England Orchestra helped make Overture sound IMMENSE. I was stood there literally just shaking my head in disbelief – I really had not expected them to launch into an album so close to my heart since virtually the first days I got into rock music, and hearing them doing it so bloody well. These were only the highlights from Tommy, but what highlights! One of my favourite pieces from The Who, the psychedelic trip of Amazing Journey followed, segueing seamlessly into the spectacular instrumental Sparks, featuring the first Townshend trademark ‘windmill’ guitar action, to the delight of the crowd. It was a thrilling sequence with the orchestra adding heft and resonance to the performance. I had previously seen the Heart of England Orchestra with Steve Hackett at the Royal Festival Hall in 2018, playing Genesis classics, and they were equally excellent at the Eden Project.

The Who, Roger Daltrey - photo by Matthew North MusicWhat was clear from the start is that Roger Daltrey’s voice was splendid… not just ‘good for an old guy’… nope, his voice was clear, powerful, melodic and just wonderful for anyone at any age. OK, he wasn’t quite bellowing it out like he did in the ’70s, but he was still able to sing with passion and control with no sign of his voice wavering or struggling to hit the notes – he was spot on all night long. He also delighted the crowd with some trademark microphone twirling high into the air through Sparks and throughout the show. Alongside him, Pete Townshend prowled the stage extracting great peals of electric guitar magic from his instrument. He is no longer wrestling his guitar maniacally like an alligator or smashing it to smithereens these days, but he is still able to embellish and lead the songs with intuitive, inspired guitar play, with the occasional ‘windmilling’ action thrown in to remind us all of his distinctive and unmistakable style. Townshend can also still sing and was excellent on the impassioned The Acid Queen. Of course, no performance of Tommy could be complete without the iconic Pinball Wizard, commencing with its memorable riff, enhanced with banks of horns which added a real pizzazz to the energy of the song, which Daltrey sang so crisply. The Tommy section was all over too soon as they concluded with a stirring rendition of the finale We’re Not Gonna Take it and See Me, Feel Me / Listening to You sequence. Daltrey’s voice was simply beautiful for See Me, Feel Me and for the following anthemic Listening to You. After the song Townshend paid tribute to the orchestra and told the crowd that he wrote Listening to You as a ‘Spiritual Prayer’ which he felt was appropriate to play at the Eden Project, akin to a spiritual prayer for the planet.

How do you follow that start? Well, you roll out one of your greatest songs, Who Are You… which made me cry! The unforgettable synth and guitar intro sent a frisson of excitement around the crowd, and everyone was chanting along, including my wife Bronwen. As the song progressed vibrantly, she turned around and was surprised to find her husband in tears. Please forgive the personal interlude, but you may be wondering how a song like Who are You could have such an effect as it is not known as a tearjerker?! Music can have strange effects on us and suddenly memories can flood your mind you were not expecting. Back in about 1980, our family videotaped a great performance by The Who on the Rockpalast – still one of my favourite televised gigs ever. It became quite a custom in our house for me and my brothers to come home after a few beers and put The Who at Rockpalast video on pretty loudly. Our dear mother was very tolerant of such boisterous behaviour and she heard this videotape so many times she started to become familiar with the songs. She would be in the kitchen making a cuppa, etc., whilst it played and we could often hear her singing along “Who are You?” to our amusement… until one day she walked into the living room singing along, just at the moment Daltrey sang “Who the F… are You?” My Mum very, very rarely swore, and certainly not the ‘F’ word, so she was rather taken aback, whilst her three sons were rolling on the floor laughing uproariously! That’s the memory that flooded into my mind, which brought a few inexplicable and surprising tears to my eye… so thanks to The Who because just for a few moments I was back forty-odd years ago in my family living room with my brothers and my dearly departed Mum and I know somewhere she was still singing along! Like I said, The Who have always been a significant part of my life’s soundtrack.

Back to the review – The under-rated Eminence Front made a surprising appearance with a languid guitar intro and a fine leading vocal from Townshend, enhanced with some lush orchestral backing. The orchestra left the stage for a rather different middle section of the gig. This was a clever move by The Who – the orchestra adds so much to some songs, but there are some that simply have to be played by a pared-down foot-to-the-floor full-on rock band. This felt very much like the ‘Mod section’ as The Who band surged through mainly ’60s faves, such as Can’t Explain and the lyrically clever Substitute, alongside deeper cuts as The Kids are Alright and the iconoclastic Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, with Daltrey singing with a guttural roar. Townshend jokingly remarked afterwards that he had a sudden urge to smash his guitar! Their much later hit You Better, You Bet fit perfectly into this section, marking their journey from angry young men in the ’60s into older guys with very different concerns by the 1980s. The lighting in this section was very simple and hardly changed, with the emphasis just being on a tight rock band, driven along so slickly by Zak Starkey on drums, as he did all night.

The Who, Zak Starkey - photo by Matthew North Music

The evening moved to another level as the band ploughed into a powerful version of My Generation, which to me has always sounded like a forerunner of the punk era. Bassist Jon Button skilfully mastered the legendary bass runs of the sadly departed John Entwistle in this classic song. Starkey shone on drums in this piece, especially the extended jamming section in which Daltrey brilliantly interpreted a bluesy rendition of Cry if You Want from It’s Hard. It was just great to see a supreme rock band getting loose in a jamming section.

There’s only one way to follow that song as the lights go down. The iconic, shimmering synth sounds of the intro to the titanic Won’t Get Fooled Again chimed across the valley and the place went mad. (I will be honest and state that I was pleased they had returned to the full rock version of this piece as their previous tour featured an acoustic version – interesting, but this is a song which just has to have its full afterburners on!) We were nowhere near the end and here they were throwing in this tour de force, and with the sun fully set it was a sight to behold as The Who powered through this monster of a song and the enormous Biodomes of the Eden Project pulsed in multi colours magnificently in the background before the blinding white light ending – just amazing. After the frenzy of My Generation and the power of Won’t Get Fooled Again, both the band and crowd needed a breather. This was provided by another song from the legendary Who’s Next album, a delightful version of Behind Blue Eyes. Daltrey sang like a choirboy and Townshend sat down with acoustic guitar, joined by Katie Jacoby on Violin and Audrey Snyder on Cello. This gave this emotive song a wholly different and more subtle atmosphere and it was an inspired re-framing of the song.

The Who, Won't Get Fooled Again - photo by Leo Trimming

I was stood there thinking through the canon of songs by The Who, knowing we still had quite a way to go, and a hope started to grow in me that there was still one outstanding album that they had not played any songs from yet (I had deliberately avoided looking at recent setlists as I wanted to be surprised). This hope grew as the orchestra re-joined the band and Townshend announced they were doing highlights from Quadrophenia – this felt like Christmas Day to me. Not only highlights from Tommy, with further top cuts from the transendent Who’s Next album, we were now going to get highlights from the third in their triple crown of all time great albums! This was a definitive dream set list for me. The return of the orchestra added a more melodic and resonant feel to The Real Me and I’m the One, with some fine Townshend vocals and Daltrey on harmonica. On the rollocking runaway train of a song, 5.15, the orchestra really came into its own adding jazzy horns and a wall of sound, against which Townshend was particularly inspired, pealing out some great guitar licks. Loren Gold and Emily Marshall embroided the piece with some dazzling keyboards.

The evening is drawing to a close but The Who scale more heights with an outstanding and emotionally touching finale. As Daltrey leaves the stage and the rest commence an extended version of the instrumental The Rock from Quadrophenia, feeling like an overture for the whole by weaving in various themes from the album – this was perfect for the addition of an orchestra (and for any Prog purists out there wondering why The Progressive Aspect are covering The Who, just listen to the final sequence on side 4 of Quadrophenia and try to tell me that ain’t Prog… whatever that means anyway!). This was a spectacular, and incredibly well blended presentation I just didn’t want to end, although in effect it was just the hors d’oeuvres for the sumptuous feast to follow. Loren Gold embarked on an extended and delightful piano solo as the intro to the glory that is Love Reign O’er, which may just be the greatest vocal by Roger Daltrey in any Who song ever, and he really did it justice with such power, passion and control – an utterly remarkable performance. Daltrey, Townshend, the band, the orchestra, the lights and the setting were sheer perfection – an unforgettable climax to a fabulous show. Of course, they leave us with one more nailed-on classic from Who’s Next as that instantly distinctive intro synth wave of Baba O’Riley rings out across the crowd and the valley – this band has SO many classic songs it can call on just when you think they have reached their peak. The whole crowd sing along joyously with “Don’t cry, don’t raise your eye, it’s only Teenage Wasteland” and there is a real sese of communion with this truly special band. Katie Jacoby returns to the front of the stage to trip out the final violin solo before the gig comes to a joyful crashing stop – simply superb!!

The Who - photo by Matthew North Music

There you have it – please forgive the personal perspective but that’s the beauty of great music. So often it is more than just the melodies, rhythms and words – it is how some music permeates your life and soul and just hearing a song can transport us to different times and places and touch our hearts and souls.

The Who appear to be having quite a renaissance late in their career. What is all the more remarkable for a band infamous over the years for their youthful rebellion, chaotic lifestyles, incandescent shows and self-destructive addictive tendencies (after all Keith Moon and John Entwistle tragically accelerated their own demises) that they have somehow survived in the evergreen legendary figures of Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend. They have not just ‘survived’ – quite incredibly The Who have somehow mystifyingly managed to grow old with such grace and style. Nearing 80 and yet still somehow out there performing with incredible passion, skill and showmanship. If they come around again, don’t miss the chance to see them, after all this is the ‘Last Chance Saloon’ – so let’s toast The Who. Cheers Pete and Roger.

The Who, Daltrey & Townshend - photo by Matthew North Music

(I would like to dedicate this review to the memory of Jean Trimming, RIP… and thank my brothers Paul and Kevin for starting me off on my own ‘Amazing Journey’ all those years ago.)

[Photos by Matthew North Music (used with kind permission) and Leo Trimming.]

Tommy Highlights

(with Orchestra:)
01. Overture
02. 1921
03. Amazing Journey
04. Sparks
05. The Acid Queen
06. Pinball Wizard
07. We’re Not Gonna Take it
08. See Me, Feel Me / Listening to You
09. Who are You
10. Eminence Front
(Band Only:)
11. The Kids are Alright
12. You Better You Bet
13. Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere
14. Substitute
15. I Can’t Explain
16. My Generation (inc. Cry if You Want)
17. Won’t Get Fooled Again
18. Behind Blue Eyes (acoustic with violin & cello)
Quadrophenia Highlights
(with Orchestra:)
19. The Real Me
20. I’m One
21. 5.15
22. The Rock
23. Love Reign O’er Me (with extended piano intro)
~ Encore:
24. Baba O’Riley

Roger Daltrey – Lead Vocals, Guitar & Acoustic Guitar, Tambourines, Harmonica
Pete Townshend – Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Additional Lead Vocals & Backing Vocals
Zak Starkey – Drums
Jon Button – Bass
Simon Townshend – Guitar & Backing Vocals
Loren Gold – Keyboards
Emily Marshall – Keyboards
Billy Nicholls – Backing Vocals
Katie Jacoby – Violin
Audrey Snyder – Cello
~ With:
The Heart Of England Orchestra
Keith Levenson – Conductor

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