Over the course of the Who's storied career, each decade has seen the group fight to establish a distinct identity, then gradually transform itself into something different. From hungry young artists in the mid-'60s, to arena rock royalty of the '70s to stumbling dinosaurs in the early '80s, the band was constantly changing and struggling to reinvent itself. As 1989 arrived with the announcement of a farewell tour, the Who had seemingly matured personally and musically, showing the old passion once again, and incorporating back-up singers and additional band members into the act. Celebrity guests began making their ways into Who sets, specifically for "all star" performances of Tommy (and several years later, Quadrophenia). The tours of the '90s displayed an older and wiser Who, comfortable in playing material from its expansive catalogue, while avoiding the pitfall of becoming a rock and roll cliché. In the year 2000, the band embarked on a successful tour of the States and the UK, culminating in a charity performance at the Royal Albert Hall on 27 November. By this point in time, Townshend, Daltrey, and Entwistle were still capable of putting on rousing performances, albeit not always as a four piece, and the RAH set was recorded and originally marketed as a special DVD in 2001. Now Who fans can enjoy the show with the newly released double CD set.
In spite of the Who's greatness for over three decades, the band was guilty of inconsistencies on-stage. Sometimes brilliant, sometimes less so, the Who was usually in top form when playing for a special cause. The RAH show benefited the Teenage Cancer Trust, and thusly found an inspired Who revisiting much of its musical legacy, and doing a fine job of it.
Disc One is a tremendous collection of 11 tracks, with the band sounding as good as it had in years. Townshend's guitar work is impassioned and crisp, Daltrey's vocals are remarkably strong, Entwistle's bass is supported by Zak Starkey's pinpoint drumming, and long-time Who keyboardist Rabbitt Bundrick's playing rounds things out to near perfection. Several of the songs come from the Who's distant past, but the freshness of their sound belies their age. Townshend dazzles on "I Can't Explain", "Anyway, Anyhow Anywhere", and "Pinball Wizard", showing that his skills have not diminished into middle age. Extended jams on "The Kids Are Alright" and "Magic Bus" breathe new life into a pair of Who classics, as does a wonderful take on "Mary Anne with the Shaky Hands". The disc also features solid renditions of "Who Are You" and the Entwistle favorite "My Wife", with the latter surprisingly anchored by Daltrey's vocals.
As the first disc is a representation of modern day Who, Disc Two embodies all that was the Who and friends. Introducing special guests Paul Weller, Eddie Vedder, Noel Gallagher, and Bryan Adams, the bulk of the included 14 tracks demonstrate two points: 1) The significance and impact of the Who's music to future generations of artists; 2) The ability of the songs to stand the test of time, even with alternate interpretations.
Prior to guest artists taking the stage, the second disc opens with a pair of Townshend solo performances: "Drowned", from Quadrophenia, and "Heart to Hang Onto", from Townshend's Rough Mix collaborative effort with the late Ronnie Lane. Both songs are evidence of Townshend's prowess unplugged, and are fine additions to the CD. They also segue perfectly into Paul Weller's appearance with Townshend for "So Sad about Us", another vintage tune from the Who's early days.
Eddie Vedder takes the microphone next. A long time Who fan, Vedder has made frequent guest appearances with the band, often offering a strong vocal compliment either as lead or back-up vocalist. Of the four tracks he is featured on, Vedder does a workman like job, standing out on "I'm One" but sounding horrendous behind Daltrey on "Getting in Tune." His efforts on "Let's See Action" and "See Me, Feel Me/Listening to You" produce mixed results, not particularly noteworthy either way. Obviously, Vedder has ingratiated himself with Townshend over the years to the point where he garners a bit too much shared stage time. That said, Vedder is outdone by Bryan Adams as the Canadian rocker does a fine rendition of the Who's Next classic, "Behind Blue Eyes". Yet another track from the 1971 album is given celebrity treatment as Noel Gallagher joins the fray of "Won't Get Fooled Again", showing that his talents are not relegated to Oasis.
Despite the variety that Disc Two offers, there is one stand out song that is worth the price of admission on its own. Track nine, an 11-minute, 40-second jam on Quadrophenia's "5:15" will have fans in Who heaven. The extended version of the song is highlighted by a jaw-dropping, four-minute Entwistle solo. The Ox proves that he was peerless as a bassist as he weaves bits of jazz, funk, and full-blown rock into his performance, bringing the RAH crowd to its feet. It is simply Entwistle at his finest.
The twin disc set makes an attractive package chronicling a particularly good latter day Who performance, but is accentuated by the inclusion of a bonus third disc. Also recorded at the Royal Albert Hall, Disc Three features four songs from 8 February 2002, Entwistle's final stage appearance with his bandmates. The tracks "I'm Free", "I Don't Even Know Myself", "Summertime Blues", and "Young Man Blues" are a fitting tribute to Entwistle, but also a sad reminder that the band was preparing to kick off a sizable tour later on that year. The tour was to move forward in spite Entwistle's tragic passing, but, for many fans, the Who without the Ox was merely the Two.
The summer of 2003 finds Townshend and Daltrey contemplating studio work and potentially a new album in the future. Whether their efforts result in new material is yet to be seen, however Who fans should be pleased by what Live at the Royal Albert Hall offers in the interim. If nothing else, the new release provides two and a half hours of Who listening enjoyment, and benefits a worthy cause in the process.