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.