Thursday, July 04, 2013

Modz still rool: The Who, Palais Ominsports de Paris Bercy

© Simon Poulter 2013
Remember the concept album? There was a time when you couldn't walk into a record shop without tripping over the latest elaborately illustrated, double gatefold-sleeved musical opus spread over four sides of vinyl.

Frank Sinatra is claimed to have started it with In The Wee Small Hours, The Beach Boys took it further with Pet Sounds and then The Beatles perfected it with Sgt. Pepper. From then on in everyone was at it - The Kinks, Bowie, the Floyd, Jethro Tull, Genesis...even the Stones' Exile On Main Street is built loosely around a concept, though good luck asking Keith Richards what it was.

Today, however, the idea of a concept album by a mainstream artist is unimaginable. For a start, today's musical tastes cater, it would seem, to people with the attention span of a goldfish with ADHD, which means getting anyone to listen to a single side of an album in one go is enough of a challenge, let alone asking them to follow a story spanning more than 80 minutes of music.

For The Who, this was never an issue. In 1966 Pete Townshend penned their "mini opera" A Quick One, While He's Away. Three years later he came along with the band's full-blown "rock opera" Tommy, before writing the aborted Lifehouse story that would eventually provide the thread to Who's Next in 1971.

In 1973 Townshend produced The Who's most ambitious concept, Quadrophenia. "It's not a story, more a series of impressions of memories," he told the NME's Charles Shaar Murray in November 1973. It's also an album of subtly dark recesses - it's title partly referring to the-then new-fangled quadraphonic audio and partly to the quartet of characters who made up The Who in 1973, but also to the schizophrenic personalities of the story's central figure, Jimmy.

From a writing standpoint it was and is Townshend's favourite Who album, but with a checkered live history. When the band first took it on the road, the live show was beset with problems as they tried to synchronise their performance with tapes, a four-piece band trying to replicate an album with extensive brass and synthesiser orchestration. Given that Keith Moon once took an elephant tranquilizer before a show and required an adrenalin shot administered by a roadie to get him back in time again, this approach was always going to be difficult.

© Simon Poulter 2013

Now, sadly The Who are just two - Townshend and Roger Daltrey. Always an odd couple, a more fractious fraternity than Mick and Keef, the diminutive singer Acton street fighter alongside the stroppy cerebral one from Chiswick. With Keith Moon lost to his own devices in 1978, and John Entwhistle lost to his vices in a Las Vegas hotel room in 2002, Daltrey and Townshend have been keeping The Who's flame flickering ever since, touring Tommy, their greatest hits and Quadrophenia, long before it became fashionable to perform a classic album in its entirety on the heritage trail.

Trotted out for its 40th anniversary, Daltrey - as the show's creative director - and Townshend have clearly breathed new life into the album. For a band whose surviving principal members are at the tail end of their 60s (Daltrey turns 70 next March, Townshend is now 68), there is energy in this performance, augmented by an excellent video show that, at various moments through the story, depicts scenes of recent British history that must prove baffling to a foreign audience like this one.

But then the biggest challenge in front of any audience is satisfying the inevitable expectation of mining the entire back catalogue. With a performing heritage just a year shy of the Rolling Stones and The Beatles, The Who have plenty of singles in their history to pull off an evening of hits: in performing an entire double album, with 17 tracks of varying topography like Quadrophenia, it takes something to retain the interest of an audience that might only be there to hear My Generation one last time. But, from I Am the Sea all the way through to Love, Reign O'er Me, the ensemble brilliantly maintains the original album's breadth and depth.

© Simon Poulter 2013
There is, though, little doubt that this is a Daltrey/Townshend show we've come to see.

But then there is still so much to see. Daltrey's voice is still strong, despite various health issues in recent years with his throat.

He is still one of rock's most enduring front men, still capable of swinging his microphone this way and that, like a circus performer instinctively hitting his mark each and every time.

© Simon Poulter 2013
And of Townshend, the sometimes troubled, angry young mod, who often gives the impression of sharp intellect conflicting with inner demons, he is still windmilling his way through elaborate guitar work of an intricacy few of his contemporaries have or will ever be able to match.

There is a noticeable softening of their relationship onstage. Their camaraderie, even their brotherly love - despite years of off/on differences - comes through as should schoolfriends of such lengthy acquaintance.

For all their genuine partnership, it's still difficult not to feel their loss of Moon, in 1978, and Entwhistle 11 years ago. As an impressive coda to 5.15, stand-in drummer Scott Devours (replacing the injured Zak Starkey, Ringo's boy) pounds the skins along to a video of The Ox performing the mazy bass runs he made his signature. In another band, this might be one of those head-to-the-bar moments - a drum and bass duet.

The sight of Entwhistle, often an unrecognised part of The Who, is genuinely moving. As, too, is the ghost of Keith Moon, resurrected via audio tapes played during Bell Boy, the song he sang on the album and, during the original tour, looned his way through each night. One of rock's greatest tragedies, Moonie was also one its greatest characters, as the hilariously manic photo montage of him demonstrated.

With Quadrophenia's finale, Love, Reign O'er Me, the show reaches a majestic, triumphal end. Every sinew in Daltrey's vocal apparatus is strained, Townshend's descending guitar riff played with visible passion  - or visible anger - representing the suicidal conundrum faced by the character of Jimmy in Quadrophenia's arc. It is a breathtaking end to a breathtaking performance.

© Simon Poulter 2013

However, we're not quite done: the chugga-chugga synth of Who Are You? - made universally famous by the CSI TV franchise - introduces a semi-surprise add-on to the evening, and a chance for Daltrey to apply more of that street swagger as gets to shout "Who the fuck are YOU!" in the chorus. Baba O'Reilly brings the audience to its feet, that bassy riff waking up a few air drummers in the audience, and the incongruous sound of 17,000 mostly late middle-aged punters singing "Teenage wasteland - it's only teenage wasteland".

Without any introduction needed, Townshend strums a guitar intro rivalled only by the Stones' Satisfaction - as Pinball Wizard sends Bercy into a flailing mass of invisible guitar playing. It is intoxicatingly good fun. As, of course, is Won't Get Fooled Again. I don't know who is currently retained as Roger Daltrey's throat doctor, but as the singer lets out that famous primal scream at the end of it, you imagined that one of Harley Street's finest must be being paid handsomely.

© Simon Poulter 2013
There is, though, no My Generation. Perhaps it has become something of a millstone around Daltrey and Townshend's necks to have a song released 48 years ago containing the line "Hope I die before I get old" still in the repertoire. Instead, with the band having evacuated the stage, it is left to the two old West London mods. the pugilist behind blue eyes and his loftier mate, to sing Tea And Theatre, the touching, bittersweet closing song on The Who's final concept album Endless Wire.

As Townshend picks out the song's chords on an acoustic guitar, Daltrey, theatrically holding a tea mug, concludes the evening with the age-catching-up reflection of "All of us sad/All of us free/Before we walk from the stage/Two of us/Will you have some tea?/Will you have some tea/At the theatre with me?".

You just about hear the collective 'gulp' underneath the applause. This may be a melancholy end to a performance by a band who were once rock's angriest young men. The anger may have faded, the volume may have been turned down, but The Who are still capable of giving it maximum R'n'B.

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