You Am I perform The Who’s Tommy @ Fortitude Music Hall, 29.06.2023
If there’s a rival to the rolling stones for the band with the most number of Greatest Hits albums, it’s probably the Who. Like most people, that was my way into the band and what a great singles band they were. For that reason, it’s always slightly bizarre that to the general population, ‘Pinwall Wizard‘ is where their knowledge of the Who’s rock opera Tommy begins and ends. That a song about the deaf, dumb blind kid who sure plays a mean Pinball. But Tommy has everything. War! Murder! PTSD! Alternative medicine! Drugs! Religion! Bullying! Sexual abuse! Cult religions! Messiah complexes. Rejection of Power! And of course, pinball. Tommy doesn’t want for ambition.
You Am I perform Tommy is never not going to pique my interest. The Australian band’s love of the Who isn’t exactly much of a secret. It’s obvious on their songs even if you didn’t know about it. But the who performs Tommy? The centerpiece of the Who’s live shows in 1969 and 1970, when the band were undoubtedly at their live best, as can be heard on the expanded Live At Leeds album, as well as the Live At Hull, and Isle of Wight 1970 set albums that have been released in more recent years. Live At Leeds is a an album that lived for years with its reputation as one of the best ever live albums. Strangely, the original eight track album is fine but doesn’t really live up to it’s reputation. The expanded 33 song version, with the live version of Tommy, is something else. It’s an album that truly does belong to be mentioned in the list great rock albums, not just great live albums. The interplay between the four band members is simply stunning, more than just well rehearsed it’s more like a telepathic understanding of individual showboating but never feeling over indulgent at the expense of the songs themselves.
I’m curious to how You Am I are going to pull this off but also walk into the Fortitude Music Hall with a sense of trepidation. They’re haven’t made life easy for themselves, they haven’t taken an easy option.
Whereas the 1968/1970 version of the Who would build up to Tommy, You Am I are straight into it. They’re not doing it by half, Andy Kent in a John Entwistle skeleton suit, Rusty Hopkinson in a near approximation of a Keith Moon mod target shirt, Tim Rogers in a Pete Townsend white jump suit, because Tim Rogers was always going to wear a white jump suit, and although Davey Lane is also in all white, he’s decided to forgo the jump suit.
‘The Overture’, benefitting from the addition of the trumpet, leads into ‘It’s A Boy’ and ‘1921’ featuring an alarmingly hoarse Tim Rogers. Although he adds backing vocals throughout, these two short songs are the only solo vocals he provides all night, which seems to be by design (based on the brief glimpse of the setlist in a video the band posted to their Facebook page during rehearsals for the tour. Touring with ‘Special Guests’ Sarah McLeod and Hayley Mary, it’s McLeod who appears first for ‘Amazing Journey’. Taking her sartorial cues from the band, she’s also in all white, with a Roger Daltrey inspired fringed top. This isn’t the only Daltrey inspiration she’s taken, whirling her microphone around at any opportunity she has, plucking it out of the air when she has to start singing again. The only thing she’s missing is a second tambourine, having to battle on with just a sole tambourine when she steps back to join Rusty Hopkinson at the back of the stage during the instrumental ‘Sparks’.
While McLeod hurls herself around the stage, by comparison Hayley Mary, who first joins the band for ‘Cousin Kevin’ and ‘The Acid Queen’ initially comes across as a bit subdued, and this continues after the intermission into the start of the second half of the show. She has drawn the short straw when it came to the song allocation, as along with ‘Cousin Kevin’, she also gets to perform ‘Do You Think It’s Alright?” and ‘Fiddle About’, giving her the full gamut of the albums songs about sadistic torture and sexual abuse, which might go some way to explaining the pensive performance, especially after following McLeod’s unbounded on stage energy. For there on in through, Hayley Mary absolutely owns the second half of the show. Her performances become ever more confidence, her voice ever stronger through ‘Go to the Mirror!’, ‘Tommy Can You Hear Me?’, ‘Smash the Mirror’, ‘Sensation’, ‘Sally Simpson’, all the way to the stunning finale of ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’.
The boomers might be getting angry over on You Am I’s Facebook page in a “HOW DARE THEY USE FEMALE SINGERS. THIS IS NOT AUTHENTIC” way, but at no point during the show do you ever think “What this needs is more Roger Daltrey.” I mean, (a) why would you ever think that, and (b) since when has authenticity ever mattered? Last time I checked Pete Townsend wasn’t a deaf, dumb blind kid who sure played a mean pinball but it doesn’t make it inauthentic for him to write a song about it. The Who are still playing these songs more than 20 years after Entwistle died and more than 45 years after Keith Moon met his demise but I don’t think anyone is excusing the Who of no longer being authentic because the people who played on those records are no longer around to play the live shows. Or that 1989 version, the one where the songs took on 1980s-sounding arrangements, and bad 1980s sounds at that, and where the special guests of Elton John, Steve Winwood, Phil Collins and Billy Idol were completely blown off the stage every time Patti LaBelle opened her mouth and sang. Sarah McLeod and Hayley Mary both bring a new and fresh perspective to the songs, both singers compliment the songs they sing perfectly, both deliver incredible performances.
The true star of the show is Rusty Hopkinson though. You’ve would never contemplate doing a night of Who songs unless you’ve got a drummer who can take on the Lead Drums position to do these songs justice. For a truly awful person, Keith Moon will forever be one of the all time great drummers and Hopkinson pulls off the near impossible with an evening of never-ending rolls and fills that power these songs forward. He might lack Moon’s insane hand speed but I think it’s fair to say that Keith might have had the benefit of a lot of chemical assistance to keep him powering through those long sets. Plus Hopkinson has slightly sabotaged his ability to fully play the part of Keith Moon by including a hi-hat in his drum set-up. Still, it’s utterly mesmerisng to watch him play and this show wouldn’t have worked without him.
Tommy is not an obvious choice as an album for a band to take on. It’s a strange and weird album made up of lots of little bits, short songs, instrumental sequences. It’s a classic, no doubt about it, but it’s not a hit-laden classic, with a host of songs that entered the public psyche, outside of ‘Pinball Wizard’. Towards the end of the night Tim Rogers explains why they’re doing this show. “It’s an extremely strange record by a band we love. Why the fuck wouldn’t you? The Who as a band were amazing to us and we wanted to share some of that joy with you. Amongst the difficulties, there’s a lot of joy in Tommy. It’s brought me a lot of joy, it’s brought Andy a lot of joy, it’s brought Rusty a lot of joy, it’s brought Davey a lot of joy and we wanted to share some of that joy with you.”
There’s still time for a four song encore of some of the Who’s biggest hits. ‘I Can’t Explain’ finds Davey Lane let loose from his guitar to take on the lead vocals before Sarah McLeod takes on ‘Substitute’ and ‘My Generation’, with Andy Kent nailing one of John Entwistle’s finest moments with a perfect bass solo. Hayley Mary closes out the night with the vocals on ‘Baba O’Rily’, resplendent with its keyboard ostinato intro and Davey Lane in full rock star mode as he perches on the edge of the stage adding soaring guitar to take on the original’s violin and harmonicas parts. It’s outstanding and a fitting finale to the night.
It’s hard to know who the target audience is for this tour. It’s surprising that it’s being done as a tour around the country rather than being something that’s being saved as an exclusive special for some of the big arts and music festivals in the major cities, one of those that you’d expect to have to fly to Sydney or Melbourne to see. Looking around the venue, you get the feeling that this is an audience that’s more interested in the Who part than the You Am I bit. As a Who fan, and increasingly so as time has gone on, this show was exceptional and did justice to the songs, despite some initial reservations. As a You Am I fan, it was fascinating to see how the band took on the challenge and also that they chose to take it on in the first instance. They also deserve credit for choosing two singers in Sarah McLeod and Hayley Mary that added to the whole experience.
See you next time for Quadrophenia?