Orchestra brings grand majesty to The Who's songs at NYC's MSG

Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and company resumed their latest tour in Manhattan with a stellar show at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, September 1st.
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 Some of The Who’s touring band are shown performing at New York City’s Madison Square Garden on Sunday, September 1st. They are (left to right) Simon Townshend, Jon Button, Zak Starkey, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend. (Carl Scheffel/MSG Photos)

Some of The Who’s touring band are shown performing at New York City’s Madison Square Garden on Sunday, September 1st. They are (left to right) Simon Townshend, Jon Button, Zak Starkey, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend. (Carl Scheffel/MSG Photos)

By John Curley

Following a mostly concert-free summer, with the exception of a big hometown show at London’s Wembley Stadium on July 6th, The Who resumed their Moving On! tour with a stellar show at New York City’s Madison Square Garden on Sunday, September 1st. It was their second show at the venue on this tour. The Who had played there on May 13th of this year.

The opening act for the show was singer-songwriter Leslie Mendelson, a Long Island native. Mendelson (lead vocals, acoustic guitars and keyboards) and her performing partner, Steve McEwan (electric guitar and backing vocals) took the stage promptly at 7:30 p.m. Their 35-minute set was received quite well by the audience. Mendelson, a very engaging performer, spoke to the crowd about how thrilled she was to be performing at Madison Square Garden, an arena at which she had seen many events as a child and teenager. Her songs “Jericho,” “If You Can’t Say Anything Nice” and “Medication” got nice hands from the crowd. The highlight of her set was “The Human Touch,” a song that she had recorded with Jackson Browne for a documentary about the start of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. McEwan sang Browne’s part during the performance. Mendelson and McEwan worked very well together throughout the set.

Shortly after Mendelson and McEwan finished their set, members of the 50-piece orchestra that would be backing The Who began to take the stage. Once the orchestra was fully in place, at 8:30 p.m., the members of The Who’s touring band—drummer Zak Starkey, bassist Jon Button, backing vocalist Billy Nicholls, keyboardist Loren Gold and guitarist/backing vocalist Simon Townshend (the younger brother of Pete Townshend)—took their positions. A massive roar from the audience greeted the appearance of lead vocalist Roger Daltrey and guitarist Pete Townshend.

The orchestra, conducted by Keith Levenson with arrangements by David Campbell, made their presence felt immediately with stirring backing of the opener, “Overture” from the Tommy album. The performance of “Overture” was absolutely majestic, and it had the massive, roaring crowd on their feet.

 Pete Townshend is shown here in mid-windmill. (Carl Scheffel/MSG Photos)

Pete Townshend is shown here in mid-windmill. (Carl Scheffel/MSG Photos)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Tommy, so it seemed quite appropriate that The Who chose to feature material from the so-called “rock opera” in the opening section of the show. Next up was “It’s A Boy,” which featured a very strong vocal by Daltrey and nice acoustic guitar work by the Townshend brothers. The performance of “1921” featured another solid vocal turn by Daltrey as well as terrific backing by the orchestra. A truly scintillating version of “Amazing Journey” brought the show to new heights and was, without question, the highlight of the Tommy portion of the show. It was driven by the spectacular drumming of Starkey, who is the son of Ringo Starr, and outstanding backing by the orchestra. “Sparks” raised the volume and the ferocity of the band with fiery performances by Starkey and Pete Townshend. The crowd roared as Pete Townshend played the opening chords of “Pinball Wizard.” Spinning lights were projected all over the arena to give the effect of a tilting pinball machine. Daltrey provided a great lead vocal backed by the excellent guitar work of the Townshends, Simon on acoustic and Pete on electric. It received a full-throated roar from the crowd. The Tommy portion of the show came to a close with a phenomenal performance of “We’re Not Gonna Take It / See Me, Feel Me.” It featured fantastic work by the orchestra, a powerhouse vocal by Daltrey and positively ferocious windmilling by Pete Townshend.

The audience was still roaring when the opening notes of “Who Are You” were played. Daltrey seemed to be having an issue with his in-ear monitors and did not sing one verse as the band played on. The orchestra added a great deal of color to the song and Pete Townshend windmilled spectacularly toward the end of the song. The performance received a big cheer from the audience.

Pete Townshend spoke to the crowd and said that he was having some throat issues. His voice did sound a bit rough. Townshend’s vocal issues continued during the performance of “Eminence Front.” But he did make a good effort of it. The band provided good backing and the orchestra added a great deal to the song, particularly the horns and strings.

 Roger Daltrey whips his microphone around by its lead, lariat style, as Zak Starkey keeps the beat. (Carl Scheffel/MSG Photos)

Roger Daltrey whips his microphone around by its lead, lariat style, as Zak Starkey keeps the beat. (Carl Scheffel/MSG Photos)

One of the highlights of the show was the strikingly beautiful performance of “Imagine A Man,” a track from 1975’s The Who By Numbers album that The Who had never performed live until earlier this year. The intro of the song featured outstanding work by violinist Katie Jacoby and cellist Audrey Snyder. Daltrey’s lead vocal on the song was stellar as was the acoustic guitar work of the Townshend brothers.

Pete Townshend told the crowd that The Who’s new studio album will be out in mid-November. The performance of the new song “Hero Ground Zero” followed. It was quite good. They had only performed it live once before, at London’s Wembley Stadium in July. Pete Townshend did the orchestral arrangement for the song.

At this point in the show, the orchestra left the stage to Daltrey, Pete Townshend and the touring band. They tore into a fiery version of the 1966 power-pop Mod single “Substitute” that featured some nice work by Button on bass. It received big cheers from the audience. Up next was “The Seeker.” Daltrey provided a powerful lead vocal, Starkey stellar drumming, and Pete Townshend some fantastic guitar work. The performance of “You Better You Bet” included some excellent keyboard work by Gold.

 Roger Daltrey, 75, and Pete Townshend, 74, continue their music partnership that began in 1962 in a London-based band called The Detours. (Carl Scheffel/MSG Photos)

Roger Daltrey, 75, and Pete Townshend, 74, continue their music partnership that began in 1962 in a London-based band called The Detours. (Carl Scheffel/MSG Photos)

The band left the stage to Daltrey and Pete Townshend for their acoustic performance of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” It was nice. Daltrey, 75, was in strong voice and Pete Townshend, 74, provided some nice acoustic guitar work. The crowd loved it.

The band, with violinist Jacoby and cellist Snyder, returned to the stage for “Behind Blue Eyes.” It was quite beautiful, with the strings adding so much poignancy to the song.

As the orchestra returned to the stage, Pete Townshend spoke to the crowd about the difficulty of a veteran band playing a new song. And he joked that the audience “better f---ing stand up” during the performance of the new song. Townshend also apologized for the technical issues during the show and thanked the crowd for the patience at what was the first show of a long tour. The song that followed, “Guantanamo,” isn’t exactly a new song. A version of it, sung by Pete Townshend, appeared on a 2015 compilation of his solo work titled Truancy. The version by The Who is sung by Daltrey. The performance of the song had some spirited drumming by Starkey.

The songs from Quadrophenia that were performed were perfectly enhanced by the orchestral backing. And the orchestra proved their mettle on that material right away with a standout performance on “The Real Me.” The band, particularly Starkey, were playing with great intensity while backing Daltrey’s powerhouse vocal. Pete Townshend forgot the opening lyrics to “I’m One,” so brother Simon sang the first bit to him and then Pete picked it up. The orchestra’s strings gave a standout performance and Daltrey did some nice work on harmonica. A truly outstanding take on “The Punk And The Godfather” followed, and the orchestral backing took the song to another level. The orchestra’s horns gave a standout performance during “5:15,” which also featured a great vocal by Daltrey and some killer guitar from Pete Townshend.

Townshend paid for the ferocity of his playing during “5:15,” telling the crowd that he had ripped off a fingernail while playing the song. He then said that he knew it would be throbbing later that night and would give him difficulty when trying to sleep. He then performed “Drowned” solo on acoustic guitar. It was a nice effort, despite his voice still being a bit rough. It received a big hand at the end from the crowd.

The incredible performance of the instrumental “The Rock” was one of the highlights of the show. The Townshend brothers both gave fantastic performances, and Starkey’s playing was terrific. The orchestra added so much power to it, and the crowd roared in appreciation. Gold played a very nice extended piano intro to “Love, Reign O’er Me.” Daltrey’s vocal was very strong, Pete Townshend was windmilling ferociously, and the orchestra really brought out the beauty in the song.

The show came to a close with a scintillating performance of “Baba O’Riley.” As the synth intro played, colored lights flashed all over the arena in sync with the music. Daltrey had the crowd sing the “teenage wasteland” bit of the song. Jacoby was featured on violin at the end of the song. The crowd roared for quite some time after the song was over. Before leaving the stage, Pete Townshend introduced the band.

This was a show that could be appreciated by longtime fans of The Who and by newbies as well. While some veteran rock bands playing with an orchestra can sound bombastic and seem gimmicky, that isn’t the case with The Who’s current show. While their music wasn’t originally written with an orchestra in mind, it sounds like it was. The band and orchestra complemented each other so well. Those attending shows on this tour should keep in mind that it is, at times, a very loud performance.

The Who’s North American tour runs through October 24th and concludes with a show at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Full tour dates can be found at https://www.thewho.com/tour/.

The December 2019 issue of Goldmine will include a feature piece on the 40th anniversary of the release of the film Quadrophenia, which was directed by Franc Roddam and was based on The Who’s 1973 album of the same name. The issue will be on sale on November 8th at Barnes & Noble, Books A Million and select record stores in the USA.

The Who’s setlist was as follows:
With orchestra:
Overture
It’s A Boy
1921
Amazing Journey
Sparks
Pinball Wizard
We’re Not Gonna Take It / See Me, Feel Me
Who Are You
Eminence Front
Imagine A Man
Hero Ground Zero (North American live premiere of song)

Band only:
Substitute
The Seeker
You Better You Bet
Won’t Get Fooled Again (acoustic with Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend)
Behind Blue Eyes (with violinist Katie Jacoby and cellist Audrey Snyder)

With orchestra:
Guantanamo (Pete Townshend solo song)
The Real Me
I’m One
The Punk And The Godfather
5:15
Drowned (acoustic solo performance by Pete Townshend)
The Rock
Love, Reign O’er Me
Baba O’Riley (featuring violinist Katie Jacoby)

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