The Who / Eddie Vedder / Kaiser Chiefs
London Wembley Stadium
Living legends offer new material and orchestral manoeuvres, but it’s the looser, band-only moments that really sparkle.
“We get so used to being alive,” ponders Pete Townshend, eulogising a friend who died last week. “It’s weird. All of us here – we’re alive! It’s a fucking miracle”. And so The Who keep going, all jokes about My Generation (benched tonight) long exhausted, not just raging but experimenting against the dying of the light. Tonight they play most of the set with a full symphony orchestra – Roger Daltrey’s idea, Townshend reveals, perhaps passing the buck in case it bombs – and leave out many of the big anthems you might expect. Yes, they’ve done plenty of greatest hits sets in recent years, but this, including debuts of songs from their forthcoming album, is still bold for a massive venue where the sound quality isn’t optimum. It’s not an unqualified success, as the dynamics of (still fiery) band and sweeping strings get lost in a foggy wash en route to the cheap seats. The idea would have made more sense in a concert hall. Initially, Townshend’s guitar is inaudible. But something’s tweaked as darkness falls during their two-hours-plus set, and the energy coalesces until rock reigns o’er us.
Earlier, a far from full stadium had stared over its chips with mild interest at Kaiser Chiefs, that curiously resilient halfway house between reality TV tat and indie urgency. By the time they reach the accidentally prescient romps of I Predict A Riot and The Angry Mob, Ricky Wilson’s Robbie-Williams-with-a-sociology-degree schtick has prompted polite applause. Eddie Vedder offers a more earthy, earnest oeuvre, playing mainly acoustic and with a string quartet, his voice still his disarming weapon of choice. He has fans here, who lap up the stripped-down Pearl Jam oldies, guest spots by Simon Townshend and Glen Hansard, and a cheerful breeze through Queen’s Crazy Little Thing Called Love.
So The Who, next, hurl out a complex, often confounding catalogue deep dive. Townshend declares, during a speech bashing “hairy hippies and Richard Branson”, “you do the activism – we’ll provide the soundtrack”. It begins with an orchestral swim through Tommy excerpts, and wraps with Quadrophenia highlights. As Pinball Wizard plays, the teenager next to me pulls up his hoodie, dons headphones and buries his nose in his phone screen. Oh the vision of Townshend’s lyrical prophecies.
In between the two concept album trawls, it feels as if collars are loosened as Who Are You and a band-only Substitute and The Seeker allow the electricity to crackle. New songs Hero Ground Zero and Big Cigar sound promising if not overwhelming, while an acoustic Won’t Get Fooled Again, by just Roger (voice decent, if fading) and Pete, would have worked better if Pete hadn’t started playing The Seeker again by mistake. Sweetly though, his apology to the singer, and the laugh they share, is proof of their enduring againstthe-odds affection. When Daltrey mocks Townshend’s “factory worker” blue overalls, the guitarist retorts: “He’s never worked in a factory in his life. He was a priest, you know”. Later, Daltrey remarks, poignantly, that their “youth and glamour” have gone, but the music is still “fucking brilliant”. If that’s the case, Zak Starkey’s filling-big-shoes drumming is a big factor.
Behind Blue Eyes coaxes the raised phone lights that used to be lighters, and after Vedder guests on The Punk And The Godfather, the mighty 5.15 and Baba O’Riley land the climactic rush, early wobbles forgiven. They’re alive. It’s a miracle. And the world looks just the same.