“You’re going to remember this for the rest of your lives,” Roger Daltrey promises, but not necessarily for the right reasons. The Who, as guitarist Pete Townshend explains, shrugging his way onto a stage that generally demands the most rigorous preparation, have rehearsed their stripped-down acoustic show for Daltrey’s annual Teenage Cancer Trust charity shows for “about two hours”, with a “thrown together ”band of fiddle players, squeezeboxers and tub-thumpers. “It’s absolutely s ***,” he admits.
He’s not joking, either. An early mimic of Taj Mahal and Keb Mo’s country blues cover of “Squeeze Box” falls apart several times amid knockabout disagreements over which key it should be in. The advertised “new ending” for “Pinball Wizard” doesn’t happen at all and Daltrey is knocked out of musical whack by malfunctioning in-ear monitors several times, even insisting on playing 2019’s “Break the News” twice to get it right.
For the first half-hour, the gig works as both quasi-rehearsal and comedy show, as Townshend makes actress and bishop jokes, throws shade at Rod Stewart and quips about how he and Daltrey now make music “at different speeds. He’s getting faster and I’m getting cooler. ” During one of many false starts to a rootsy “The Kids Are Alright”, he calls for a knighthood for Daltrey – under fire of late for his I’m-alright-Jack attitude to new bands’ post-Brexit touring problems but undoubtedly the hard-working hero of the TCT. “If I’m gonna be anything I’d rather be an Earl,” Daltrey responds, “It’s more bluesy.”
Initially, such repartee alone provides the intimacy that acoustic shows generally aspire to, since a full-hearted bash through “Substitute” suggests The Who couldn’t stop rocking if they tried. There is, after all, little poetic earnestness to be drawn from lines such as “the north side of my town faced east and the east was facing south”. But as “The Kids Are Alright” gives way to a wistful autobiographical coda, Daltrey recalling the early days of the band like a minstrel of the microphone lasso, they begin to expose the emotion within their music as much as its folk, skiffle, country and blues foundations.
Their big ballad “Behind Blue Eyes” is an obvious acoustic fit, transformed tonight into a swamp country lament, and 1967’s “Tattoo”, a rite-of-passage tale of young brothers exploring manhood through the art of the needle, makes an easy transition to heart-warming hymnal. More intriguing are the elements of dub, gospel and reggae that come to the fore on “Eminence Front” and 2004’s “Real Good Looking Boy”, a track that steals blatantly from Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and more subtly from Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry”. By the time they indulge a spot of flamenco seaminess on “She Rocked My World” and turn the live debut of “Beads on One String” into a stirring folk unity anthem, the stage festooned with digital Ukrainian flags, they’ve hit the right balance of weight and restraint. “Who Are You”, delivered like a Mississippi porch party, is exactly what the Albert Hall signed up for.
The real revelations are saved for last. A stunning accordion-led “Baba O’Riley” gains luster without losing any of its shiver-inducing power. And as the band leave the stage for Daltrey and Townshend to perform “Won’t Get Fooled Again” with just one acoustic guitar between them, the true Who of 2022, the passion at the core of their music is stripped beautifully bare. Like the man said: unforgettable.