By John Curley
The Who Hits Back!, the veteran British band’s latest North American tour, rolled into New York City’s Madison Square Garden, self-proclaimed as “The World’s Greatest Arena,” on Thursday evening, May 26th. The current tour pairs The Who with an orchestra, as did their 2019 shows in North America. The addition of the orchestra adds a great deal of color and texture to songs from one of the best-known catalogs in rock.
The evening’s festivities kicked off right on time at 7:30 p.m. with a 35-minute set by the five-piece, London-based band The Wild Things. Fronted by lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Sydney Rae White, their style is an enjoyable hybrid of rock and power pop. White also acts and has a considerable number of credits, including a starring role on the BBC-TV sitcom Uncle from 2014 to 2017. The Who’s Pete Townshend produced and played guitar on The Wild Things’ latest single, which is titled “Only Attraction.” The Wild Things also played in Manhattan the following night, doing a headline show at Mercury Lounge.
Following an interval of about 45 minutes, the members of the orchestra began to take their places onstage and the excitement began to build in the crowd. Most of the orchestra for the Madison Square Garden show was comprised of musicians from the New York City area. There are several orchestra musicians that travel with The Who and perform at every concert: violinist Katie Jacoby, cellist Audrey Snyder, keyboardist Emily Marshall and conductor Keith Levenson. The orchestral arrangements of the songs were done by David Campbell.
Once the orchestra was in place, The Who’s touring band walked onto the stage and got into position. They are guitarist/backing vocalist Simon Townshend (the younger brother of Pete Townshend), drummer Zak Starkey (the song of Ringo Starr), bassist Jon Button, keyboardist Loren Gold and backing vocalist Billy Nicholls. Lead vocalist Roger Daltrey and guitarist/vocalist Pete Townshend then strolled onto the stage together to a thunderous ovation from the crowd.
The first section of the set spotlighted songs from 1969’s Tommy album. The instrumental “Overture” began the proceedings, and it was magnificent. The orchestra’s strings and horns made their presence known immediately, and it was a joy to hear such a spectacular arrangement of the song. Starkey’s drumming was central to the song, and he really knocked it out of the park. He is a phenomenal musician and, in many ways, is the engine that drives The Who’s onstage sound. Next up was “1921,” which revealed that Daltrey was in very good voice. It received a tight performance by the band. The take on “Amazing Journey” was an all-hands-on-deck affair, with the orchestra and band melding perfectly, Daltrey delivering a great lead vocal and Starkey seeming to channel The Who’s late drummer (and his one-time mentor and friend of his father’s) Keith Moon. The performance of “Sparks” wasn’t as blistering as it had been at past concerts, but the orchestra added some shine to it. Pete Townshend did some stellar guitar work on “Pinball Wizard,” and the orchestra helped to bring the song to another level. It also featured another impressive vocal performance by Daltrey. The orchestra added a great deal to the performance of “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” with the “See Me, Feel Me” portion of the song being quite majestic. It was unquestionably one of the highlights of the show.
Pete Townshend spoke to the crowd for about one minute following the conclusion of the Tommy portion of the show. He talked about losses from the pandemic as well as the loss of an associate of The Who. In addition, Townshend spoke of the cancer charities that The Who is involved with, the U.K.’s Teenage Cancer Trust and the USA’s Teen Cancer America.
At the end of his remarks, Townshend said to the crowd, “We certainly know who you are.” The band and orchestra then launched into a strong version of “Who Are You.” Daltrey played a Fender Telecaster as he delivered the song’s lead vocal. The strings added richness to the song and Starkey, once again, provided a terrific performance. Daltrey again played a Telecaster during an extended version of “Eminence Front” as Pete Townshend assumed the lead-vocal duties. His vocal was powerful, the horns added punch and Gold’s keyboard playing was terrific. At the end of the song, the band slammed to a stop as Townshend delivered the last vocal bit and then kicked back in for a big finish. It was quite effective. “Ball and Chain,” from the 2019 studio album Who, is about the treatment of prisoners at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay. Daltrey gave a strong vocal performance on it. The first orchestral section of the concert closed out with a stirring performance of “Join Together.” It may have been Daltrey’s best vocal performance of the night. The orchestra’s horns were magnificent throughout the song. Toward the end of the song, a photo of actor Ray Liotta, who had passed away at age 67 earlier that day, was shown on the video screens at either side of the stage.
After the performance of “Join Together,” the orchestra members left the stage. Pete Townshend told the audience that The Who would play a few songs without the orchestra “to remember how it used to be.” A quite impressive version of “The Seeker” followed. The band’s performance of the song was tight, and it was highlighted by Daltrey’s strong vocal and Starkey’s stellar drumming. Daltrey’s vocal and Gold’s outstanding keyboard work drove the excellent performance of “You Better You Bet.” Pete Townshend’s guitar playing powered an outstanding version of “Relay” that was another highlight of the concert. Daltrey and Townshend both exhibited a lot of fire on the performance of the song that brought back memories of the band’s past glories. It was a nice moment in the show. Two songs from 1971’s Who’s Next ended the orchestra-free portion of the show. The version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” had an epic scream by Daltrey, outstanding guitar playing by Pete Townshend, fantastic keyboard work by Gold and incendiary drumming by Starkey. It was another concert highlight. That was followed by a genuinely beautiful version of “Behind Blue Eyes” for which violinist Jacoby and cellist Snyder returned to the stage. Their playing made the song quite poignant. Pete Townshend sat down during the song and played his part on an acoustic guitar. Daltrey, once again, delivered a terrific vocal.
As the orchestra filed back onto the stage, Pete Townshend spoke to the crowd about how the members of the orchestra bring to life the horn parts that The Who’s late bassist John Entwistle created for many of the songs.
Once the orchestra was in place, several songs from the album that many hardcore fans of The Who consider to be the band’s masterpiece, 1973’s Quadrophenia, were performed. Button’s rock-solid basslines drove “The Real Me” as Daltrey delivered a very impressive vocal on one of The Who’s most rocking songs. Pete Townshend sang lead on the poignant “I’m One” while playing acoustic guitar. His vocal was strong, and the orchestra made the song even more beautiful. It was an outstanding performance. The Who and the orchestra pulled out all stops for the incredible performance of an extended version of “5:15.” The horns were key as Daltrey provided a powerful lead vocal, Gold did some of his best keyboard work of the evening and Starkey played like a man possessed. It was very enjoyable to witness. To cap it off, Pete Townshend, whose guitar work was outstanding throughout the song, began to do his famous “windmill” move toward the end of the song, much to the delight of the crowd. The horns were once again vital to the performance of the instrumental “The Rock.” It was fantastic. Simon Townshend played the song’s precise guitar lead, which freed up brother Pete to be more demonstrative with his playing. And Starkey’s drumming on the song was outstanding. During the performance of the song, historical images from the 1960s and onward were shown on the video screens at either side of the stage. “Love, Reign O’er Me,” which concluded the concert’s Quadrophenia segment, began with a beautiful extended piano intro by Gold. The band delivered a tight performance, led by Daltrey’s powerhouse vocal and Starkey’s knockout performance on drums. Pete Townshend did some genuinely great guitar work toward the end of the song.
Pete Townshend addressed the crowd prior to the performance of “Baba O’Riley,” the final song of the night. He thanked the fans for coming to the show and joked that if the band “lived around the corner,” they would play Madison Square Garden on a monthly basis, like Billy Joel is currently doing. He then introduced the band members.
The crowd cheered when the synth intro to “Baba O’Riley” began playing. Button’s terrific bass playing served as the foundation of the song. The audience sang along with Pete Townshend’s “teenage wasteland” vocal bit. Toward the end of “Baba O’Riley,” Jacoby went to center stage and played out the remainder of the song magnificently on her violin.
As the crowd cheered, the band took its bows and Pete Townshend thanked the band’s road crew for their hard work. He added that some members of the crew had come down with COVID-19. The cheers from the audience continued as the band exited the stage. They had played for slightly over two hours.
Daltrey is now 78 and Pete Townshend is 77. While age has slowed them down a bit and they are not The Who of the band’s glory days, they still put on a terrific and very entertaining show. The fans in attendance at Madison Square Garden clearly enjoyed the performance.
The Wild Things’ upcoming concerts can be found in the Shows section of their Web site at https://thewildthingsband.com/.
Tour dates and locations for Daltrey’s upcoming solo shows in the U.K. and concert listings for The Who’s second leg of the North American tour this autumn can be seen at https://www.thewho.com/tour/.
The Who’s setlist was as follows:
We’re Not Gonna Take It
Who Are You
Ball and Chain
You Better You Bet
Won’t Get Fooled Again
Behind Blue Eyes (featuring Katie Jacoby on violin and Audrey Snyder on cello)
The Real Me
Love, Reign O’er Me
Baba O’Riley (featuring Katie Jacoby on violin)