The Who Reigns Over St Helens

It’s not often that St Helens welcomes rock royalty but The Who would make the Totally Wicked Stadium their home for the night, a welcome change from seeing Saints getting battered at home. UB40 featuring Ali Campbell and Standin’ Man would support.

It was a shame to miss most of the start of Standin’ Man’s set because they had the makings of a really interesting throwback rock band. They had this 70s arena rock aesthetic mixed in with this psuedo hippy attitude. If You Don’t Know What to Do With Yourself in particular stood out amongst their setlist, it’s sonically reminiscent of Oasis but had that 70s rock swagger and killer guitar work.

They were a mixture of eras but it seemed like the 90s British rock scene was where their musical influence was most prominent, despite a large amount of their set being a cover of Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles. Their set was brief but it made an impact on an unfortunately smaller crowd, hopefully they’ll be back to tour the rest of the UK for headline shows in the near future.

UB40 featuring Ali Campbell would seem like a strange opening act for The Who but upon experiencing the entire show, it was even stranger in retrospect. UB40 featuring Ali Campbell were a very tight and competent band but their brand of easily digestible reggae but without any knowledge of the reggae classics on their setlist, it all started to blend together.

Their set was largely covers of Reggae standards and they were fairly well done but it didn’t contrast well with the rock sound that would dominate most of the set. It felt like most were either there for The Who or UB40 featuring Ali Campbell and I suppose that gives it a bit more of a general appeal.

UB40 featuring Ali Campbell have been staples of gatherings of drunk white people for decades and this was probably the best way to experience that. While the music wasn’t for me, it was a joy to see so many half cut white people living their best lives swaying back and forth and “dancing” to tracks like Red Red Wine and Kingston Town. Can’t Help Falling in Love is actually a really good cover of a fantastic song and hearing live was a pleasant experience.

This may seem derogatory or dismissive of the people who were genuinely having fun, it may be a slog for some but seeing so many people enjoy themselves in an admittedly comical manner does make it more fun and interesting to experience. To put it bluntly, I wasn’t that into it but I’m glad everyone else had fun.

The Who came on shortly after and issued a warning that their set was a slow build and they were right. They opened with an Overture of Tommy which was arguably the first rock opera ever made. The orchestra was a welcome addition considering how experimental The Who became in the late 60s.

1921 and The Amazing Journey sound rich and full with the orchestra and Roger Daltrey’s voice sounds incredible for his age, he does struggle to hit some of the higher and he’s occasionally a bit pitchy but it’s the way he he hits the notes and how emotive his voice is that have made him a standout among some of the other legacy acts that are still around.

Tommy is a fairly high brow and restrained experience compared to the rest of The Who’s back catalogue even though there are some harder rock tracks. Pinball Wizard is arguably one of the most iconic rock songs of the 60s, the growl of Pete Townshend’s overdrive guitar contrasts with the energetic acoustic guitar work. It’s amazing seeing so many older members of the audience feeling reinvigorated as every single one of them screamed “that deaf dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball”

This section of the show ended with two pop culture juggernauts, Who are You which is  more progressive than I remember it, it takes a lot of weird twists and turns in between the crowd pleasing single. The real surprise was Eminence Front, a song that I had known from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas but never knew was a Who song.

Pete Townshend had this really gruff approach to his vocal delivery, it actually makes Eminence Front feel much darker and heavier. The whole song has this neon lit Soulful 80s vibe to it and it would feel at home on the soundtrack of a gritty 80s crime drama Vigilante or Colours.

The second set saw the orchestra take a break as the band played a selection of classics like The Kids are Alright and Substitute but it was at this point that it started to become a rock show. Pete Townshend demanded that everyone stop being old and have a dance, the atmosphere started to turn and it seemed like a much more youthful and joyful experience.

My Generation feels like a strange song to include in the setlist but it’s actually quite versatile. My Generation, aside from being an eternal classic, may have started from a youthful perspective back in the 60s but it can be applied to any age group and any demographic wanting to live an existence free from scrutiny from those that make no effort to understand them.

Won’t Get Fooled Again is an all time classic amongst drummers and Zak Starkey had been doing a stellar job for the rest of the show but this was his moment to shine. It felt like his drum solo was shorter than on the record but perhaps that was for the sake of including more songs in the setlist but his drumming was still intricate, rhythmic and powerful.

The orchestra returned for the final set as the band played segments from Quadrophenia, one of the best albums of the 70s. Quadrophenia was almost designed to be played with an orchestra as they blasted through all time classics like The Real Me and 5:15.

It was raining fairly heavily at this point in the show and that added to the experience quite a bit as the mood of Quadrophenia is really quite sombre but it was all worth it to hear and see Love Reign O’er Me as it poured. The beautiful piano introduction was glorious and Roger Daltrey’s performance was stellar and you could feel that everything he’s singing about and experiencing still has meaning.

The Rock was a mesmerising experience as videos of major world events played on screen from the moon landing to the 2016 election and all sorts of incidents in between. It was also a heartwarming experience to hear thousands of people coming together to boo Thatcher whenever she appeared on screen.

The show ended with a collection of the biggest chords ever recorded. A massive stomping arena masterpiece and a contender for one of the best songs ever made; Baba O’Riley. The synth and piano intros give this sense of tension before the thunderous drumming kicks followed by Pete Townsend’s signature windmill guitar strum, a rock star technique that very few can make look as flashy and magical as Pete can.

The Who are one of the most important bands in the history of rock music, they revolutionised the medium in which they told stories and they constantly pushed the envelope of songwriting and production for years all while creating some of the greatest music ever made.

Words by Dale Unsworth 

Photos by Chris Ryan 


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