From the moment they were announced to close the Sunday night, there’s been a slight air of desperation about The Who’s booking. They didn’t quite step in at the last minute, but they left it late enough – having to hastily reschedule the gig they were meant to be playing in Paris tonight – to make you wonder if they were the organisers’ first, second, or even third choice. Consequently, The Who must be one of the least-hyped headliners in recent memory: they’ve been billed as part of a Mod’s Choice package deal alongside Paul Weller, and while the prospect of those two acts sharing the same bill will have a certain sort of music fan salivating all over their desert boots, for most people, they’re simply a safe pair of hands. Then again, given Foo Fighters’ non-appearance on Friday and Kanye’s divisive one last night, perhaps that’s exactly what the festival needs.
“Here we are again,” deadpans Pete Townshend as the band take to the stage, a subtle acknowledgement that they weren’t expecting to return so soon after their 2007 performance. “We’ve got a lovely, simple job to do tonight,” he continues, “which is to send you home happy. And maybe a bit deaf.” On the big screen behind them is projected footage of their younger selves, of swinging sixties dancehalls and mods riding in formation: they’re playing to people’s memory of them, but for the first third of the set, the reality is certainly impressive enough. Daltrey bellows ‘The Seeker’ with his customary gusto, while ‘The Kids Are Alright’ and ‘Pictures of Lily’ are amongst the early highlights.
Things become rather more ponderous during a middle-section that puts the emphasis on their 70s and 80s output, much of which lacks the spark and vitality of their early singles. ‘You Better You Bet’ might play well to the arena crowds of Middle America, but it doesn’t really connect here, and nor does ‘Love, Reign O’er Me’, a song which asks a lot of the 73 year-old Daltrey, and which – for all its full-throated bluster – isn’t really worth the trouble. The set hits its low-point with the flaccid funk-rock of 1982’s ‘Eminence Front’, but from there, things build to a thrilling climax, beginning with ‘Amazing Journey’, the first part of a medley of ‘Tommy’ tracks. ‘Pinball Wizard’, inevitably, provides the big singalong moment, but ‘See Me, Feel Me’ is the dramatic high-watermark, with Daltrey lassoing his mic-lead with pin-point accuracy while Townshend windmills his way through power-chord after power-chord.
“This could’ve been better, but it’s been as good as it could be,” says an apologetic Townshend before the closing ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, clearly annoyed by the technical problems that have apparently stemmed from the band’s lack of a soundcheck. It’s meant as a throwaway comment, but he’s unwittingly hit the nail on the head: The Who haven’t brought anything to the table that they didn’t already in 2007, but they’ve brought enough to send everyone home happy. And that, after all, is the job they were enlisted to do.