Gig review: The Who, First Direct Arena, Leeds

As the last strains of the final power chord echo around the First Direct Arena I feel it appropriate all of a sudden to begin the review with a confession.

Roger Daltrey on stage at the Wireless Festival.
Roger Daltrey on stage at the Wireless Festival.

You see, I am perhaps not the best placed individual among the 12,000 plus audience from tonight’s audience to offer an impartial review. The reason being, for those that know me, is that The Who changed my life.

It’s not a statement I make lightly, they genuinely did. My existence changed almost unrecognizably following my first witnessing the group in action at Woodstock in 1969.

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Of course I wasn’t lucky enough to be in upstate New York that summer but I was fortunate enough, aged around six or seven-years of age, to regard video footage of that incredible performance.

Roger Daltrey on stage at the Wireless Festival.

I can still relive it now. Townshend in white boiler suit, 100 per cent lost in the music and in a perpetual St Vitus Dance. Daltrey, resplendent in fringe jacket twirling his microphone delivering a tour de force of vocal gymnastics. It’s never left me. To this day I regard watching that performance as the moment I first felt truly alive. Just like they were.

Imagine my horror when my dad told me that the band had since split up. If I could have told my youthful self then that would get to see The Who four times by my mid-thirties I could have prevented a lot of prepubescent tantrums.

Which brings us to tonight’s gig, ostensibly their final tour (although Townshend teases us at the end with the remark “until next time”).

Although they’re lads from the west end of London, Leeds is inextricably linked to their existence thanks to the iconic and immutable Live at Leeds record, the undisputed heavyweight champion of live albums.

The link is self-evident from the moment the band walk on stage when Daltrey grasps his microphone and cries joyfully, “Live at Leeds!”.

Townshend spoils the moment by sneeringly enquiring “are you students?” - a nod to the album’s being recorded at Leeds University - before sending the audience into rapture by striking up the intro of I Can’t Explain.

Closely followed by Substitute, The Seeker and The Kids Are Alright, it’s clear what kind of night we’re in for - a two-and-half-hour nostalgia festival. Nobody complains.

Inevitably attention will be drawn to the band, who as every lazy hack will remind you once sang about hoping to die before they get old (My Generation markedly missing from the setlist), yet is now getting on in years. Townshend is now 70, Daltrey not far behind.

And of course one is constantly reminded that it’s only half the band we’re watching, something the band never hide from, with visuals of the group - with original members John Entwistle and Keith Moon, constantly on the big screens.

While long-since departed (36 years since in Moon’s case) their presence is still palpable, particularly as they have had to enlist a further five musicians to make up for their irreplaceable contributions.

However we get to relive the original four piece, thanks to modern technology, with Entwistle’s thunderous bass solo in 5.15 played over the screens to much rejoice from the crowd. Always the best musician in the band, one is transfixed by his virtuosos playing.

Inevitably the biggest cheers come for Moon’s cameo, in the middle of Quadrophenia’s Bell Boy, when his vocals and face fill the arena. Chants of “Moooney” abound as Daltrey and Townshend gaze in respect at the former colleague on the screen, a touching act of difference. Bloody hell, the guy could play.

The current line-up ain’t too shabby neither. Townshend still has the moves and chops. His solo and vocals in Eminence Front are amazing. And the entirely of Love Reign o’Er Me, the climax of Quadrophenia, is heart-stopping as Daltrey lets rip a roar that would shame men a quarter of his age.

It’s not all roses, Daltrey struggled with his monitors all night, having to stop singing on more than one occasion, unable to hear himself. Those with the relevant vantage point were able to see the confrontation with the sound man as they walked off in all its ugly glory. He clearly wasn’t comfortable or happy.

Ultimately, The Who are rock royalty, pioneers who set a standard for intensity and passion in music that set an unassailable bench mark for all those who came after them.

Baba o’Reilly typified that tonight as Leeds bellowed the words “Teenage Wasteland” in unison, even though many of their misspent youths are now forgotten dreams.

Unlike The Who themselves of course, they’re going nowhere. This may be billed as a farewell tour but 50 years in they’re still going strong and better than much else out there.

What else are they going to do, retire? Fat chance. We won’t let them.

See you next time Pete.