The Who review – even at 50, still too spiky to be national treasures

Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London
The Who celebrate their fifth decade by rocking out with a host of guest vocalists from the Strypes to Liam Gallagher

The Who are unlikely candidates to have reached their 50th anniversary. Right from the outset, the group’s intra-band relationships have largely appeared to be as confrontational, fractious and driven by angst and testosterone as has their undeniably thrilling music.

Yet the group survived the deaths of drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle and somehow made it to their half-century. It’s an occasion they mark with this charity show for the Teenage Cancer Trust – of which singer Roger Daltrey is the indefatigable patron – that sees a host of guest vocalists tackle their back catalogue along with their touring band.

Pete Townshend is notable by his absence (“He would hate all this!” cackles Daltrey), but he might have enjoyed hearing Andy Burrows romp through I Can’t Explain and the Strypes and Wilko Johnson manhandle The Kids Are Alright. Both songs are punchy reminders that when the Who emerged, they defined their music as “maximum R&B”.

Rizzle Kicks could be Daltrey’s grandkids, but cannily introduce a rapid-fire rap to the propulsive glower of Who Are You? However, Rich Hall’s growling Dalek drawl through You Better You Bet merely proves that, as a singer, he makes a tremendous comedian.

The same verdict could be applied to Johnny Vegas’s bawled a cappella muggings, but Ricky Wilson channels the restless anxiety at the heart of 5:15 before being joined for Bell Boy by Phil Daniels, apparently in his original Quadrophenia parka. Joe Elliott merely turns Love Reign O’er Me into epic bombast, as is his wont.

Three Degrees singer Sheila Ferguson appears not to have aged since 1973 as she shimmies through a taut yet psychedelic performance of The Acid Queen, while Rush’s Geddy Lee’s leather-lunged take on The Seeker confirms that when the Who rock, they really rock. Liam Gallagher’s simian strut may be risible, but his snarl and swagger are perfect for a correctly attitudinal reading of My Generation.

“Without the Who, I would be nothing,” notes the earnest Eddie Vedder, and his soulful vocal captures the longing at the heart of Naked Eye and the amphetamine rush of Won’t Get Fooled Again. Daltrey himself rounds off the night with the scabrous, bleak and witty Substitute. Fifty years in, the Who are still way too spiky to be mere national treasures.

• Glasgow SECC 30 November. Box office: 0844 395 4000. Then touring.


Ian Gittins

The GuardianTramp

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