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“No shouting,” Pete Townshend chastised the cheering crowd. “It’s a f***ing opera!”
Now three years removed from the conclusion of its 50th anniversary tour, which Roger Daltrey had labeled at the time The Who’s “long goodbye,” the mythic rock band is back on the road and touting its most grandiose iteration yet — Townshend and Daltrey, a five-piece backing band and a monstrous 48-piece symphony orchestra.
Yes, more than 50 bodies took the Madison Square Garden stage Monday night to heighten and reinvigorate a long list of Who tunes, many of which were plucked from the band’s two great opuses, “Quadrophenia” and “Tommy” — the latter, which helped coin the term “rock opera,” celebrates its own 50th birthday later this month.
Considering the boundless vision Townshend shed upon these sprawling albums decades ago, as the projects that would push The Who beyond its previous pop-rock restraints and into a space far more radical, this latest reality — which features the 73-year-old luminary windmill-strumming his Gibson surrounded by violins, french horns, bassoon and timpani — must resemble what he’d always imagined these songs could (and should) be.
This gargantuan 31-date roadshow has been labeled the “Moving On!” tour and ostensibly promotes the band’s eponymous new album due out later this year (it’s first since 2006) but this two-hour set was, in practice, a celebration of the band’s past penchant for maximalism — and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for enduring fans to witness the songs performed as such.
The concert was sliced into three movements: first, a “Tommy”-centered medley with the orchestra (a different, local outfit for each show) at full strength; then a cluster of early-career odds and ends without the symphonic outfit; and finally a “Quadrophenia”-focused segment that concluded as most Who shows have in recent memory, with the ever-bombastic “Baba O’Riley.”
The “Tommy” bit ran through eight of the genre-busting LP’s 24 tracks, including the first five tunes played in succession, from the soaring, elaborate “Overture” to the crunchy “Sparks,” which called on Townshend to shred as he always has, a lanky, grimacing blur of arms and fingers, still one of rock’s most virtuosic guitar men.
The favorites “Who Are You” and “Eminence Front” were also wedged into this section, and boomed cacophonously — both of those original compositions are so distinct in their own right they weren’t particularly enhanced by the immensity of orchestra, conducted by Keith Levenson and arranged by David Campbell.
After about an hour, the ensemble left the stage and the core band — now merely a seven-piece — ran through a handful of “golden oldies, just like we are,” as Daltrey put it.
Here fans heard a jaunty “I Can See For Miles” — miraculously the band’s only Top 10 single in the U.S. — and a folksy rendition of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” with only Daltrey wailing and Townshend mercilessly hammering his acoustic guitar.
A cellist and violinist soon returned to the stage to warm “Behind Blue Eyes,” a song whose exceeding vocal demands Daltrey continues to manage. At 75, Daltrey is among the most seasoned singers left performing at the arena level, and considering he underwent surgery earlier this decade to have pre-cancerous growths removed from his throat, his propulsive belts have held up remarkably well.
Daltrey was indomitable during the third act’s titanic climax, “Love, Reign O’er Me,” which began with a masterful piano interlude courtesy of Loren Gold and reached its zenith during Daltrey’s incendiary wails. While the rest of the performance was exciting and bright, these moments brought on the goosebumps, erasing a blemish a few songs earlier when Townshend forgot the opening line to “I’m One.”
“I’ve never been very good at remembering lyrics, this isn’t old age,” he joked, as Daltrey threw him his line.
While this new tour has not been billed as a farewell trek, Daltrey has again suggested it could feasibly be the band’s last: “I’m just being realistic about going through the 75th year of my life,” he told Rolling Stone in January.
If that were to occur, and The Who never get to showcase whatever new material is coming, this would be one hell of a send-off: cuts from its most expansive and respected projects, reimagined by a magnificent orchestra and unleashed in a way that commemorates one of the greatest rock bands to ever take the stage.