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The Who’s new groove: Orchestral maneuvers in the dark

BY EVERYNIGHT CHARLEY CRESPO | Rock bands and orchestras seldom meet on the same stage — unless you are The Who. The British rock band started as a quartet in 1964, and began working with orchestrated arrangements periodically following the success of the “Tommy” rock opera in 1969. In recent years, however, a full orchestra has been an integral part of every Who tour, and even on solo dates by the band’s two surviving founders, vocalist Roger Daltrey and guitarist Pete Townshend.

This symphonic turn is ironic, since The Who’s original premise was to be an explosive blues-rock quartet. What made The Who so unique in its earliest days was that each of the four musicians played as if their instrument was the lead. Daltrey was the lead vocalist, Townshend played lead guitar, the late John Entwistle played lead bass and the late Keith Moon played lead drums. Curiously, the 21st-century version features predominance by symphony instrumentalists, many hired to read from charts for the night.

Roger Daltrey. (Photo by Everynight Charley Crespo)

At Madison Square Garden, the “The Who Hits Back!” concert was bound by these charts. Wiggle room and spontaneous jams were not possible when dozens of musicians on stage came prepared to read charted music. These specific arrangements raised a legitimate question: Were the extra musicians accompanying the rock band or was the rock band accompanying the orchestra?

The concert featured orchestrated arrangements for the first 10 songs, followed by the rockers without an orchestra for five songs, and concluded with orchestrated arrangements for the final six songs. The core band consisted of Daltrey, Townshend, guitarist Simon Townshend, keyboardists Loren Gold and Emily Marshall, violinist Katie Jacoby, cellist Audrey Q. Snyder, backing vocalist Billy Nichols, bassist Jon Button and drummer Zak Starkey. Keith Levenson conducted the 48-member orchestra.

Daltrey was in fine voice, although not nearly as spectacular as when he performed in the earlier decades. Townshend’s riotous guitar playing was thrilling when it was not smothered by the volume of the orchestra. Oddly, perhaps the most impressive performance came from Starkey, son of the Beatles’ Ringo Starr; Starkey’s clever drum fills were mesmerizing and powered most of the drive of the concert.

Pete Townshend. (Photo by Everynight Charley Crespo)

Starkey’s stunning percussion throughout the concert raised another question. Since the band featured such an amazing drummer, why did The Who have three additional percussionists in the orchestra? Did the concert genuinely benefit from tympanis, for instance, on all but five songs?

The audience grooved on hearing the classic songs performed live. The Who performed mini-sets from “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia.” They largely dwelled in their 1970s catalog, but also played “Ball and Chain” from the band’s 12th and most recent studio album, 2019’s “Who.”

The Who closed the concert with flashy crowd pleasers. “Love, Reign O’er Me” was accompanied not only by rousing orchestral crescendos, but also with projected video clips of dark history, including the September 11 terrorist attack and the violence in Ukraine. For the finale, “Baba O’Riley,” Jacoby moved center stage to dance with gypsy flair alongside Daltrey and the Townshends as she played an extended lead on her violin.

In general, however, having nearly 60 musicians play the majority of the concert was excessive and detracted from the evening’s fullest rock potential. Indeed, the most engaging and riveting portion of the concert was the midsection, when the orchestra was on break. Will someone please tell Daltrey and Townshend that fans long for The Who to return to performing live as a four-piece powerhouse rock band?

The “The Who Hits Back!” show is touring the United States in two legs, one in the spring and one in the fall. The Who will return to the New York City area with an Oct. 7 concert at the UBS Arena in Elmont, Long Island. The performance will include an orchestra.

Set list

With orchestra

  1. Overture
  2. 1921
  3. Amazing Journey
  4. Sparks
  5. Pinball Wizard
  6. We’re Not Gonna Take It
  7. Who Are You
  8. Eminence Front
  9. Ball and Chain
  10. Join Together

Band only

  1. The Seeker
  2. You Better You Bet
  3. Relay
  4. Won’t Get Fooled Again
  5. Behind Blue Eyes (featuring Katie Jacoby on violin and Audrey Q. Snyder on cello)

With orchestra

  1. The Real Me
  2. I’m One
  3. 5:15
  4. The Rock
  5. Love, Reign O’er Me
  6. Baba O’Riley

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