Live photo: Naomi Dryden-Smith
Review: Steve Harnell

The Who
Wembley Stadium, London
6 July

“Does anyone need their sink unblocked?” It’s not your usual rock star opening gambit, but here’s Pete Townshend greeting the Wembley Stadium crowd in a Columbo-style mac and boiler suit, the latter reminiscent of the Clockwork Orange-referencing stage get-up he favoured in the early 70s.

This latest incarnation of the band, though, is far from the stripped-back powerhouse quartet of yore. To keep things interesting for surviving original members Roger Daltrey and Townshend, particularly Pete whose fraught relationship with his mothership has often erred on the fractious, they are currently utilising an expansive orchestra for two-thirds of this show.

It’s an interesting premise that could trouble their purist fans – large chunks of Tommy and Quadrophenia are included here but the narrative arcs of both stories are lost by not playing them in their entirety.

Instead, this is a Frankenstein’s monster of a setlist; selections from two rock operas plus greatest hits, a Townshend solo cut and most intriguingly of all, two new songs from their forthcoming studio album, all performed both with and without orchestra.

We’ve been here before, of course. Tommy and Quadrophenia have been given the classical treatment before by The Who. They both benefit from the formidable new arrangements, Tommy’s opening Overture, It’s A Boy and 1921 sound immense, bolstered by this new framework; stabbing strings mirror the main riff to Amazing Journey. 

Although Townshend’s guitar at first is submerged by the surrounding orchestra, his grandstanding flamenco-inspired intro to Pinball Wizard is given due prominence in the mix and fires up the audience immediately.

Pete’s mac is finally jettisoned for a fearsome Who Are You and his faith in Eminence Front as a setlist mainstay finally seems justified in its new orchestral setting. Only Imagine A Man seems to lose the crowd a little.

New song Hero Ground Zero, from the forthcoming autumn studio album, is slipped in. It feels like a sturdy addition to their back catalogue, an improvement on last LP Endless Wire.

As the orchestra take their leave for a band-only mid-section, they clatter through Substitute and The Seeker. When Daltrey and Townshend attempt a radical acoustic duo reinvention of usual blockbuster set highlight Won’t Get Fooled Again, there’s confusion; Roger kicks in with the first verse only for both to realise that Pete has started playing The Seeker all over again.

When they sort themselves out and actually remember which song they’re playing, it’s a brave yet still ultimately frustrating move – the usual high-octane rock format now marginalised as a somewhat middling strumalong, no matter how furiously Pete thrashes away to inject it with some momentum.

After support act Eddie Vedder has earlier mentioned how music can and should change the world, Pete takes the counter argument mid-set, explaining that Won’t Get Fooled Again’s genesis came from his realisation that the Woodstock generation of rock stars shouldn’t preach politics. “You do the fucking activism, we’ll provide the soundtrack,” he adds.

Townshend’s in good humour throughout although the emotional resonance of this being the first Who gig after the death of his guitar tech Alan Rogan – he’d been at Pete’s side for more than 40 years on the road – is not lost on fans or the band themselves.

Once the orchestra returns, Pete plays solo track Guantanamo before Quadrophenia highlights hover into view. The lush studio originals are further enhanced here, Daltrey and Townshend take turns to front The Real Me and I’m One respectively before Eddie Vedder is called back to duet on The Punk And The Godfather.

Of the gargantuan-sized boots to fill, bassist Jon Button is more understated than John Entwistle, supporting the bottom end of songs rather than dominating, showboating and soloing within arrangements like The Ox once did.

Meanwhile, Zak Starkey continues to prove what a powerhouse drummer he is. Lest we forget, his 23-year tenure in The Who now far exceeds that of Keith Moon’s. 

A far more flexible and muscular-sounding replacement for Keith than Kenney Jones ever was, this was another supreme performance from Starkey. File him alongside Pete’s brother Simon on rhythm and lead guitar as The Who’s secret weapon.

5.15 remains a go-to Who set highlight, its five-note main riff here sounding enormous and Daltrey showcase Love Reign O’er Me – a tribute to how his voice remains astonishingly strong despite the rigours of performing these songs – set up beautifully by keyboard player Loren Gold’s “Chopin moment”.

If Won’t Get Fooled Again felt like a missed opportunity, they make up for it with a supreme Baba O’Riley. Violinist Katie Jacoby almost steals the show with her wild country waltz soloing.

The Who’s evolution over the years, sometimes due to enforced circumstances, at others wholly creative jumps into the unknown, has rarely been less than fascinating.

Whether they need the bells and whistles added to their back catalogue is a moot point; these remarkable songs have stood the test of time.