The Who with Orchestra Live at Wembley
These days, The Who typically garner a collective yet unconscionable shrug from most of us. As peers of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, the group led by Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey are still regarded as one of the bands that helped establish rock and roll in the first place. But are The Who still considered cool?
They often aren’t because, unlike Led Zeppelin, The Who decided to trudge on after the death of their original drummer in 1978 (and, 21 years ago, their original bassist). Whether it was smart or just plain blasphemous to carry on without Keith Moon and John Entwistle, respectively—and carry on as The Who, no less—is a conversation for a different time. What matters here is whether it makes sense for Townshend and Daltrey to release another live album nearly 60 years into their career, and whether it’s worth the investment. It does, and it is—even for a band that already has more than 15 concert recordings to their name, including 1970’s incomparable Live at Leeds.
That’s because, for starters, The Who were (and continue to be) a greater live band than all the rest. At the Concert for New York City at Madison Square Garden in October 2001, Townshend and Daltrey made that argument—and won the debate—with a fiery four-song set that marked a comeback of sorts. Midway through that tribute event, the band stole the show, even elbowing past David Bowie as the night’s most memorable participants. Decades later, the concert still reflects The Who’s ferocity.
With technology still unable to immortalize the experience of witnessing The Who in concert, it’s worth remembering that quadraphonic sound is critical to their oeuvre. Townshend’s expert use of that model is best summed up by 1973’s Quadrophenia. Bearing in mind that the concept album came out 50 years ago—and that modern 4.0 surround sound systems still can’t capture the beauty of four-channel sound—it’s logical that The Who would continue to issue concert material.
Bolstering that argument is the fact that The Who played the concert at hand, which took place July 6, 2019, at London’s Wembley Stadium, with a full orchestra. The band’s concerts that year aren’t as monumental and fresh-sounding as 1994’s No Quarter: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Unledded, but they did shine a light on the ambition that originally drove The Who to devote themselves to an orchestral version of Tommy in 1972.
While it’s difficult to back any band’s decision to release so many live albums, Wembley is not one to overlook. The 20-track affair is loaded with glistening, lesser-known tracks like “Ball and Chain,” “Hero Ground Zero,” “Imagine a Man,” and “Tea & Theatre.” Lumped together with over a dozen more songs originally intended to be heard as full-bodied masterpieces, The Who with Orchestra Live still doesn’t measure up to Leeds, but is nonetheless an essential legacy album.
With Daltrey having recently blown out 79 candles on his latest birthday cake, it’s ridiculous that The Who continue playing live. But what’s more ridiculous and equally undeniable is how great Townshend and Daltrey continue to sound, particularly in hitting high vocal octaves. They speak sparingly on this Quadrophenia-heavy concert recording; the only significant banter is Townshend crediting Daltrey with the idea for touring with an orchestra. Instead, they leave these 20 shiny, best-heard-on-vinyl gems—especially “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” and “Baba O'Riley”—to do most of the talking.