In Concert: The Who – Moving On!

The Who, Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids Michigan, May 7, 2019.

Taking the mike as The Who casually took the stage, surrounded by a 49-piece orchestra, Pete Townshend saluted my adopted hometown. “Grand Rapids — on the Grand River — a grand occasion!”

As I’ve noted before, Michigan has played an outsized part in The Who’s history — the site of their first US hit single (“I Can’t Explain”, in Detroit) their first US gig outside New York (the Fifth Dimension Club, in Ann Arbor), their first car driven into a swimming pool (at Flint’s Holiday Inn).  Tuesday night brought a new “first” — the opening night of an ambitious band-plus-symphony tour.  Would it be a brave triumph?  A crazy experiment?  An baffling failure?  A cynical cash grab?  We would get to find out — first!

What we got was a mix of the first two possibilities — thoroughly intriguing and pretty gripping, worth some shaky moments and rough pacing for the sheer, audacious impact of the whole package.  The evening was by no means a smooth ride or a safe play to a sold-out sports arena crowd; parachuting into unfamiliar sonic terrain, The Who had to blaze new trails forward.  They stumbled at times, but when they found their feet, the musical vistas they discovered could be downright glorious.

The opening extended medley from Tommy — most of the original Side One, plus “Acid Queen”, “Pinball Wizard” and the finale — showcased what symphonic backing could add to The Who’s music.  David Campbell’s arrangements were neatly creative, true to the originals while adding fresh perspectives — massed strings doubling the opening power chords; John Entwistle’s swooping horn lines rendered by full brass and winds; a giant wall of sound driving “Amazing Journey/Sparks”, then cushioning the closing “See Me Feel Me/Listening to You”.  After touring a complete orchestral Tommy last year with most of the current backing band (Simon Townsend on guitar, Jon Button on bass, Loren Gold on keyboards) and conductor Keith Levenson, Roger Daltrey was on point from the start — eager, relaxed and feral by turns.  His vocal prowess, more astonishing than ever at 75, was sturdy and consistent all night.

Townshend and drummer Zak Starkey, on the other hand, were visibly struggling to get on track.  It’s a challenge inherent in the new format: bringing an orchestra onstage, The Who committed to playing by their rules — including their approach to rhythm.  In order to stay together, Levenson and the orchestra played to steady click tracks, with Starkey watching the conductor and translating to the band, while playing an electronic drum kit to avoid feedback from extensive onstage miking.  When he or Townshend (working off monitor wedges instead of earpieces) got their adrenaline revving — especially on tunes with pre-recorded backing tracks like “Who Are You” and “Eminence Front”  — the results could get bumpy.  According to The Who’s own blog, “Join Together” only held together because Levenson audibly cut a measure from the orchestral score to re-sync the ensemble!  You had to sympathize as, while the orchestra exited for a break, Townshend vented: “I just think this is a s*** idea that Roger had!”

But any onstage tension quickly dissolved in the semi-acoustic interlude that followed: a straightforward “The Kids Are Alright” (the only pre-Tommy song of the night); “Behind Blue Eyes”, subtly augmented by solo strings from concertmaster Katy Jacoby and principal cellist Audrey Q. Snyder; Endless Wire’s “Tea and Theatre” performed as an affecting Daltrey/Townshend duet.  And the piece de resistance: a down and dirty “Won’t Get Fooled Again” that stripped out the synthesized backing, electric guitar and the final Daltrey scream — and still rocked like mad.


Their break over, the orchestra re-entered for an extended dive into Quadrophenia.  Throughout this segment, Townshend visibly gained confidence and control: his vocals on “I’m One” and “Drowned” soared, “The Punk and the Godfather” had him windmilling like a man possessed (with Daltrey twirling and tossing the mike by his side), and he peeled off a fine extended solo on  “5:15”.  With all forces finally aligned, the night came together; “The Rock” was a transcendent meld of band and symphony, and Daltrey rode atop the seething aural storm of “Love Reign O’er Me” with tremendous tenderness and power.  “Baba O’Riley”, featuring the orchestra doubling the hypnotic opening counterpoint and Jacoby taking center stage for her violin solo, proved a satisfying finale, as the audience bellowed out the lyrics with all their might.

So, not a safe show for The Who, and not necessarily one that will appeal to their fanbase from the get-go.  But on balance, the opening night was appropriately brave and crazy, and surprisingly good.  (And it has the potential to be truly great; given a week or two of further shakedown, the whole thing could take off.)  If they come near you, on the current tour leg or in the fall, this unique take on Townshend and Daltrey’s work is definitely worth your time.

— Rick Krueger

Setlist:

  • Tommy:
    • Overture
    • It’s A Boy
    • 1921
    • Amazing Journey
    • Sparks
    • Acid Queen
    • Pinball Wizard
    • We’re Not Gonna Take It
  • Who Are You
  • Imagine A Man
  • Eminence Front
  • Join Together
  • The Kids Are Alright
  • Won’t Get Fooled Again
  • Behind Blue Eyes
  • Tea and Theatre
  • Quadrophenia:
    • I’m One
    • The Punk and the Godfather
    • 5:15
    • Drowned
    • The Rock
    • Love Reign O’er Me
  • Baba O’Riley

One thought on “In Concert: The Who – Moving On!

  1. Well,I most definitely have to give it to Mr. Pete Townsend who verbally shouted his displeasure in venting “This is a Shitty idea that Roger had” by bringing in an orchestra!!! I coudn’t be in any more agreement with him on that one!!! Let me give You a prime example of this.

    Back when RUSH was still touring during their final tour (but unfortunately,NOBODY KNEW it was their absolute FINAL TOUR!!!)……….they,for WHATEVER REASON………..decided to bring in an “orchestra” to back them up for MANY of their LOVED songs. Now,I’m NOT saying that was a bad decision,because on a FEW SONGS,such as “Losing it”…………I actually ENJOYED hearing the orchestra,back them up,and it sounded profound!!! HOWEVER…………they should’ve ONLY been brought out for a FEW songs at best,because from then on,their “sound” was more of an irritation than it was an adequate,reasonable way to add to RUSH’s catalog of Songs!!! I say this,knowing FULL WELL,that the MAJORITY of RUSH-FANS agree with me fully on this!!! There WERE those of course,that actually enjoyed the involvement of the orchestra,but THOSE were RUSH fans who weren’t even BORN YET,during the majority of RUSH albums!!!

    So,having said THAT^^^……………I’ll simply say that I’m sure The WHO did their ultimate BEST at performing,and will forever go down as one of the TOP Rock-n-Roll bands of the “60’s” era,but Yes Pete………….the Orchestra is NOT NEEDED!!! ~Peace~

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