Review by John Curley
Photos by Frank White Photography
The Who’s latest North American tour, dubbed Moving On!, arrived at New York City’s Madison Square Garden on Monday, May 13th. While the veteran British rockers have headlined the World’s Most Famous Arena many times in several different incarnations since the 1970s, the May 13th show was the first time that they would be doing so backed by an orchestra.
The evening of music began with a very enjoyable 40-minute set by the singer-songwriter and Long Island native Leslie Mendelson. Performing with her songwriting partner Steve McEwan, who provided backing vocals and guitar, Mendelson, on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, delivered an excellent set of alt-country tunes. The set was highlighted by a fantastic cover of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou.”
Following an interval of about 20 minutes, the house lights came down and the members of the orchestra took their seats. They were followed by The Who’s touring band: Simon Townshend (younger brother of Pete Townshend) on guitar and backing vocals, Loren Gold on keyboards, backing vocalist Billy Nichols, Jon Button on bass and drummer Zak Starkey. When founding members Pete Townshend (guitar, vocals) and Roger Daltrey (vocals, guitar, harmonica) took the stage, they were greeted by a thunderous roar from the packed house.
Since this year marks the 50th anniversary of The Who’s Tommy album, the band opened the show with a selection of songs from the much-celebrated “rock opera.” And it was immediately evident that working with an orchestra was a genius move by The Who. The orchestra, conducted by Keith Levenson with arrangements by David Campbell, added a grand majesty to the opening song of the night, “Overture.” The horns and strings added so much color to the song. One could see that many in the audience were absolutely awestruck by what they were hearing. A nice version of “It’s A Boy” followed. Daltrey was in strong voice for a stirring and quite powerful take on “1921.” Daltrey upped the ante on an absolutely spectacular version of “Amazing Journey.” An outstanding version of the instrumental “Sparks” came next. It was a perfect example of how well The Who worked with the orchestra, and it featured terrific drumming courtesy of Starkey.
The New York City crowd was loving the show and being quite vocal about it. A smiling Pete Townshend jokingly admonished the crowd: “No shouting! It’s a f---ing opera!” He then began playing the intro to “Pinball Wizard,” which drew even louder cheers from the audience. The song made perfect use of the orchestra. And the synergy between the rockers and the orchestra continued on a scintillating version of Tommy’s closer, “We’re Not Gonna Take It / See Me, Feel Me.” Pete Townshend provided some outstanding guitar work on the song and Daltrey, once again, did a great lead vocal, particularly during the “See Me, Feel Me” portion of the song.
Pete Townshend spoke to the crowd following the show’s Tommy section about how much it meant to him to be back in New York City and said that the city was something of a second home to him. He went on to talk about how many friends he had made in the city over the years, particularly after The Who’s performance at the 9/11 concert when he befriended many first responders.
The performance of “Who Are You” provided a great example of just how much the orchestra added to the show as they really brought the oft-played song to life. Daltrey added a terrific lead vocal and the playing of both Starkey and Pete Townshend was fantastic. Pete Townshend led the band for 1982’s “Eminence Front” with his stellar guitar work and lead vocal. The orchestra, again, added a great deal of color. The next song, “Imagine A Man,” from 1975’s The Who By Numbers album, was a bit of a wild card since The Who had never performed the song live until this tour’s opening show in Grand Rapids, Michigan last week. The Who and the orchestra combined to perform a really beautiful and quite memorable version of the song. The take on “Join Together” that followed may have been the best version of the 1972 song yet. The orchestra breathed new life into it, backing Daltrey’s strong vocal.
For the next section of the show, the orchestra took a break and The Who performed several songs on their own. First up was a stellar take on the 1966 single and Mod anthem “Substitute.” It was astonishingly good, featuring a powerful vocal by Daltrey and an outstanding, Keith Moon-like performance by Starkey on drums. The tour debut of 1967’s “I Can See For Miles” was up next. Again, Daltrey’s lead vocal was top notch as was Pete Townshend’s guitar work. The band left the stage to Daltrey and Pete Townshend for their acoustic performance of the anthemic “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” While this acoustic version did without Daltrey’s trademark scream near the end of the song, he did let the crowd take over the lead vocal during portions of the song. And the crowd sang with great gusto. The rest of the band returned to the stage for “Behind Blue Eyes.” Joining them were violinist Katie Jacoby and cellist Audrey Snyder. Jacoby and Snyder both gave great performances during the song, adding much color to another longtime staple of The Who’s setlist. The band and Jacoby and Snyder departed the stage, leaving it to Daltrey and Pete Townshend once again for their performance of “Tea & Theatre” from 2006’s Endless Wire album. The version that followed featured a perfect vocal by the 75-year-old Daltrey and standout acoustic guitar work by Pete Townshend, who turns 74 next week.
As the band returned to the stage and the orchestra took their seats once again, Pete Townshend spoke to the crowd about the performances of their 1973 album Quadrophenia that The Who did at Madison Square Garden in 1996 and how those shows brought the band back together. The Who have toured every few years since those 1996 MSG shows and the Quadrophenia tour that followed.
A selection of material from Quadrophenia was up next. “The Real Me” provided a showcase for bassist Button, on his first tour with The Who. The song was another great pairing of the band and orchestra, and it included a strong vocal by Daltrey and yet another outstanding performance by Starkey. “I’m One” had to be restarted due to an error in the intro. Once the song began again, the introspective tune featured a nice lead vocal and good acoustic work by Pete Townshend while Daltrey provided harmonica and the orchestra gave excellent backing. The performance of “The Punk And The Godfather” that followed was quite arguably the standout of a show that was filled with many highlights. The majestic sound of the orchestra mixed so well with The Who’s hard-driving rock in the song. Daltrey, Starkey and Pete Townshend were all outstanding as they tore through the tune. The orchestra’s strings and horns added a great deal to a rip-roaring take on “5:15.” And the orchestra provided a richness and perfect backing to Pete Townshend’s lead vocal and acoustic guitar playing on “Drowned.” The instrumental “The Rock” was given an outstanding performance and was another big highlight in the show. Simon Townshend and Pete Townshend both provided stellar guitar work, and the orchestra brought it to another level. An extended version of “Love, Reign O’er Me” closed out the concert’s Quadrophenia section. It began with really stellar piano playing in the intro by Gold. The orchestra made it shine brightly, and Daltrey provided what may have been his best vocal effort of the night. It was magnificent.
As the crowd roared with appreciation for the Quadrophenia set, Pete Townshend introduced the band. The last song of the night, “Baba O’Riley” from 1971’s Who’s Next, was then performed. The orchestra gave new life to what is another Who concert warhorse. Violinist Jacoby went to center stage to play toward the end of the song, a bit that was played on violin on the studio recording of the song but had been played by Daltrey on harmonica during live shows. Jacoby gave a wonderful performance and received quite an ovation from the crowd at the song’s end.
Despite his strong vocals throughout the show, a visibly angry Daltrey chastised those seated in front of the stage that were smoking marijuana and said that the smoke had affected his voice. To emphasize his point, he told them to “F--- off!” Pete Townshend and Daltrey then said their goodbyes and they, the rest of the band and the orchestra left the stage to a massive ovation from a crowd that was clearly knocked out by the show that they had just witnessed.
While this version of The Who is obviously quite different from the more raucous version of the band from years past, it can still hold its own on a concert stage. Those holding tickets for this tour’s upcoming shows are in for a real treat. The Who are releasing a new studio album later this year but have not performed any of the new material yet on this tour.
This leg of The Who’s North American tour ends on May 30th with a show in Pittsburgh. Following a month off, they play a massive show on July 6th in their native London at Wembley Stadium. That show will also feature performances by Imelda May, Kaiser Chiefs and Eddie Vedder. The North American tour resumes on September 3rd in Toronto and concludes with a show at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on October 24th. Full tour dates and ticket links can be found at https://www.thewho.com/tour/.
The Who’s setlist was as follows:
It’s A Boy
We’re Not Gonna Take It / See Me, Feel Me
Who Are You
Imagine A Man
I Can See For Miles
Won’t Get Fooled Again (acoustic)
Behind Blue Eyes (with orchestra string accompaniment)
Tea & Theatre (acoustic)
The Real Me
The Punk And The Godfather
Love, Reign O’er Me
Baba O’Riley (featuring violinist Katie Jacoby)