Judging by the heavy male presence in the Odyssey, quite a few local lads are being treated to tonight’s spectacle as Father’s Day presents.
And despite the tinge of testosterone in the air, the crowd is appropriately positive and pleasant. It’s unusual to see so much red, white and blue on display in the city’s environs without complaint, for The Who are undeniably English, although the audience is multi-national as I find myself surrounded by German, Spanish and Derry accents.
As the early worshipers assemble in the cavernous arena, American trio The Last Internationale take to the stage. Delila Paz, clad in red, fills the space with her dominant vocals while bandmates Edgey Pires and Brad Wilk rip through a set firmly ensconced in the blues and rock. Paz is keen to spell out the group’s affinity with the working class, though some attempts to encourage audience participation seem to fail from where I was sat.
Any initial hesitation is swept away and within a couple of tracks the Belfast audience is cheering them enthusiastically. There may only be three of them on stage, but they sound so much bigger and the crowd is ready for the main attraction.
A quick turnover, and on schedule The Who take to the stage apologising for their late appearance, after “logistical” issues prompted them to postpone the Belfast and Dublin gigs last November. They first appeared in Belfast in May 1966, and most recently in 2013. They haven’t quite sold out, but the auditorium seems pretty close to capacity.
Pete Townshend stands stage left, wearing a grey t-shirt, flourished with a scarlet pocket square from a breast pocket which compliments his scarlet Fender guitar – a fusion of dresscodes that mirror the anarchic path the group has trod. Roger Daltrey stands centre, black trousers and shirt with top buttons undone, a surprisingly full mop of long curly hair and tinted glasses. They look confident, and with 51 years of practice, deservedly so.
Two large screens allow those of us towards the rear of the auditorium a better glimpse of the onstage antics. As they launch into The Seeker and I Can’t Explain the huge upstage screen bursts into life, filled with beautiful pop-art graphics. As the evening proceeds the graphics pay homage to the songs’ origins, there’s augmented clips from Quadrophenia, Terry Gilliam-esque collages, striking artwork.
Daltrey’s vocals are deeper, more gravelly than in the band’s 70s heyday, and at first he seems to be holding back, but as hit after hit plays out his voice finds an increased strength until he’s bellowing out notes that would put a younger man to shame. It’s as if he’s channelling the energy of the willing crowd. Townshend’s harmonies and solo efforts are equally fine, if a little more restrained. Their unique chemistry, the very heart of The Who, is still very much there. As they loosen up they banter together, Townshend windmills his arms as he plays and Daltrey swings his microphone with controlled recklessness.
Townshend and Daltrey are keen to praise their touring band for subtle changes to arrangements and supporting vocals that allow familiar songs to be performed live once again. The result is a powerhouse that never relents, with even the seemingly gentler Behind Blue Eyes becoming a rock anthem.
There’s a promise for a lot of early material (I Can’t Explain, The Kids Are Alright etc.), but the first 20 years of the group are well-represented, with Who’s Next material providing a backbone (Behind Blue Eyes, Bargain, Baba O’Riley). Perhaps disappointingly for a career-spanning set, there was nothing from the last decade – the Endless Wire LP and recent single Be Lucky completely overlooked – with the ‘newest’ song being Eminence Front from the 1982 LP It’s Hard.
Much of the floor is on its feet by the end of Who Are You? – only the third track of the set, and one is tempted to ask ‘How can they follow a crowd-pleaser like that?’ But after two hours and some 20 tracks, we’ve still barely scraped the surface of The Who’s catalogue.
The glorious mini-opera A Quick One (While He’s Away) plays out in front of a knowing circus tent graphic, leading into a revelatory extract from Tommy with its Metropolis/Christ-like onscreen visuals. Townshend’s recurring lyrical themes are brought into fresh context and the legend ‘You Are Forgiven’ takes us into the narrative of a pseudo-messiah before ending the night on the crowd-pleasing Won’t Get Fooled Again. In these selections, and the material from Quadrophenia, Townshend shows his dexterity as a song writer, as a composer, and as a minister of musical excellence with Belfast his willing congregation for the evening.
Some dates from the 2013/14 tours went so far as to incorporate performances from former colleagues Keith Moon and John Entwistle, but this now seems to have subsided giving full credit to long-time replacements Zak Starkey and Pino Palladino – though we continue to be haunted throughout with images of the fallen on the screens. Palladino bass isn’t quite as striking as Entwistle’s but along with Starkey’s drums, they’ve reshaped the tone slightly to suit their style. Daltrey’s voice was a little lost in the mix at times, but overall it was very polished, at times sounding very close to the familiar tones of the studio versions.
The whole show is a fabulous experiment in living archive – the beautiful programme; display screens highlighting factoids, and a montage of imagery; the music, performers and audience bringing together shared memories of youth with the here and now. Ostensibly a celebration of 50 years of performing together and in promotion of their latest greatest hits collection, the music continues to breathe and evolve, refusing any temptation to become a simplistic retrospective. It retains a freshness and youthful vigour, even if the youngest member (Starkey) is himself in his 50th year.
Strict curfews at the Odyssey meant that no encore was possible, but it would be impossible to come away feeling short-changed or in any way negative about the staying power of the group. The sheer professionalism and quality evident supasses the efforts of most 20 something groups. I leave buoyed up and fulfilled. Robert J E Simpson, GiggingNI.com