If you have Tommy on your iPod, fire it up. Or fire up this: Tommy – Overture
We saw Roger Daltrey at the Villa Marina a week ago. If you are our age and grew up on what is now known as “Classic Rock”, I don’t need to tell you who he was. He was the beautiful blond demi-god who twirled in leather fringe at the front of the Who and exhorted a generation (my generation, actually; heh) to “See me, feel me, touch me heal me.”
He and his band were performing Tommy - the entire thing – at Villa Marina, two miles from our front door. I grew up on Tommy and its songs are embedded in my brain forever; I was not going to miss the show.
We got there just as the opening act (two guys with acoustic guitars) were finishing up. The crowd was enjoying their pre-show lagers and the ballroom was starting to fill. Our £39 tickets (this will be important later) got us standing room on the floor. We settled ourselves in 15′ from the stage and waited. Half the people were in their 20′s and 30′s – the other half were of our age or older. Recall that Daltrey is now 67 years old.
This was a man who had screamed “We Won’t Get Fooled Again!” countless times since 1970. As Lisa said, “If his voice sucks, I’m walking out.” When the band came out, Daltrey had a large mug of tea in his hand, but looked pretty awesome for a man almost 15 years older than I am.
They jumped right into “I Can See for Miles” and “Pictures of Lilly”. Daltrey’s voice was certainly not the instrument of a 25-year-old rock god, but it was strong, sure, and accurate. He was also emotionally and physically in peak form, and having a great time.
The band, not surprisingly, kicked substantial ass, not least because of the presence of Simon Townshend, Pete’s younger brother. Simon has many of the same moves and mannerisms of his older brother, but none more than you would expect because of DNA; he was certainly not aping the legend.
The band’s musical director and lead guitarist, Frank Simes, is apparently one of those legends whose name you don’t know but is on everything, either as a performer or composer.
After the two Who songs, Daltrey blew me away by doing two songs off the “Largo” concept album, which featured (I’m not making this up) Levon Helm, Taj Mahal, Cyndi Lauper, and the Chieftains. “Gimme a Stone” and “Freedom Ride” are two of my favorite songs ever and how he pulled those out I’ll never know.
And then he said, “Right, main part of the show.” He told us he’d come back to the music of Tommy and forgotten how much he loved it and how much he missed being able to play it with the three-instrument configuration of the Who. Now he had a configuration (two guitars, bass, synth, drums) that was ready and able to do the whole thing. And every one was a master of his instrument (“We auditioned 60 guys to form this band!”).
Anyway, they kicked it off from the edge with Overture and I bet I wasn’t the only guy in the place who got shivers. It was loud - as it should be – but not excessively so (I guess Roger learned his lesson from Pete, who is basically deaf now). The band played the piece with the accuracy and love that you’d expect from the London Philharmonic playing a Vaughan Williams symphony. Right down to the French horn (synth) and tympani (real). Those beautiful chords  just washed over Roger and us, cleaning away over 40 years of accumulated adulthood. I was 13 years old again and the world was nothing but infinite possibility.
For the next 75 minutes, Daltrey and the band delivered the miracle known as Tommy. Like any good opera performance, it was faithful to the original, but it shimmered with the vibrancy that only live music can deliver. We sang along, we played air guitar, some of us teared up a couple of times. There was no intermission, nothing to break the magic. At various times, one band member or another would leave the stage for a brief break, or wipe his head with a towel; it was hard work, but stopping was out of the question.
Did Daltrey miss a few notes? Of course he did. But by and large, “he was spectacular” said the voice teacher standing next to me.
When it all ended, the theater erupted in applause and the band stood together to soak up the energy and love pouring back to them.
After that, they even came back and played a few more songs – apparently they hadn’t had enough yet. But Lisa and I headed out pretty quickly – it seemed somewhat anticlimactic.
It was both an exquisite journey to the past and a grand reminder that Pete and Roger were wrong when they wrote and sang, “Hope I die before I get old.” Roger is old, but he is living large.
P.S. It was interesting to see that some of the earliest shows on their UK tour were canceled because of poor ticket sales. Apparently they pressed on for a few dates and blew the crowd away. Suddenly dates were added to the end of that tour.
P.P.S. The tour has been so successful that they’re taking it to the U.S. next month. Go and see it; this may well be your last chance to see Roger Daltrey perform a work of epic importance to a generation. And you will have a glorious time. One caveat: as I said, we paid 39 quid (US$65 or so) for our third row-ish position. One good push and I could have been at the front of the crowd. You want that on the U.S. tour, plan to pay $700 or so.
 As musically sophisticated as Tommy is, to my ear, its most righteous moments come when Townshend comes back to that I-V-IV motif that threads through the entire work.