IN CONCERT: The Who Keep It Movin’ in Boston

With a full orchestra in tow, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend let the sparks fly at Fenway Park

Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend at Fenway / Photo by Roza Yarchun

Ageism is the latest -ism upon the sociological landscape of modern political incorrectness. I can respect that.

But I must also be honest. This is what I wrote about The Who nineteen years ago for another Globe, the Boston Globe, in reviewing them at a summer shed show outside the city: Let’s get it out of the way: The Who are geezers. Geezers, geezers, geezers.

Now, just after taking in an energetic two-hour-plus show at Fenway Park Sept. 13, I find myself thinking a) Ha-ha, my, isn’t everything relative?! and b) They wear it well. 

They, of course, means singer Roger Daltrey (now 75) and guitarist-singer-songwriter Pete Townshend (now 74.) When I first wrote about Who geezer-dom, bassist John Entwistle was part of the mix, but he left us in 2002 at 57 (maybe I shouldn’t have called him a geezer?). Founding drummer Keith Moon really did exit before he got old in 1978 at 32.

Roger Daltrey at Fenway / Photo by Roza Yarchun

When I employed those geezer words in 2000, I didn’t mean to be snarky, really. Just thought we should talk about the rock elephant in the room and then move on to what the band still sounded like, what it meant. But also, because, well, we were all younger then and there was, maybe, something dodgy about veteran rock bands – especially bands that had broken up several times and been slagged off by their main man as a failure – returning for another spin around the money-making machine that was big-ticket touring.

How slagged off?

This was Pete Townshend speaking to me, sitting in a New York City hotel room, 1985, The Who having gone down after their 1982 album, It’s Hard: “Bitterness is a terrible, terrible thing and I think I started to get bitter about the fact that we seemed to be facing a fait accompli. We were a show business band. That’s what we had become. I think we forgot the essential premise of artistic entertainment, and that is that the people on the stage must genuinely be getting something from what they’re doing as well.”

We talked again, 13 years later, on the phone, with The Who back in business: “I think perhaps being in a band that fails ultimately, the way that The Who failed in the end was [due to] circumstances out of their control, and maybe, clouded the way that I looked at my career and my music.” (Even with The Who again a touring entity, Townshend kept accentuating the negativity and doubt.)

Now, I bring up the age thing again in part because Daltrey did too at the close of the show. The Who was being showered in applause by a sold-out crowd and he bid us adieu with: “Our youth is gone, our glamour is gone, but the music is still fucking brilliant.” 

Pete Townshend at Fenway / Photo by Roza Yarchun

But, you may be asking, what about Daltrey’s voice? He remains an amazingly powerful rock singer, pretty much hitting every note you’d want him to hit. Maybe used a little more vibrato. It was like magic or a time tunnel travel.  You see, I saw Daltrey a Boston club in 2009 and his voice was shot – end of the line in sight. That was before he met up with Dr. Steven Zeitels, of Mass. General, who removed pre-cancerous growths from his vocal cords in 2010 and saved his career. Daltrey thanked Zeitels (who was in the audience) profusely once again at Fenway. 

And Daltrey was right about the music – “brilliant,” it being most often backed by a 48-piece orchestra (home-grown and afternoon-rehearsed at every tour stop, but directed throughout by Keith Levenson). The present-day Who – some wags call them Half-a-Who – delivered a thoroughly invigorating, sometimes transcendent, certainly nostalgia-drenched concert that focused on excerpts from Townshend’s two operatic works, Tommy at the outset and Quadrophenia at the close. 

It will shock no one to say no rock band ever has been more suited to orchestral accompaniment than The Who. It’s not used as window dressing, camouflage, schmaltz or syrup. It’s all about breadth and enhanced clout. Yes, Townshend’s wind-milling power chords are (still) something mighty and majestic to behold – he must have done it 100 times at Fenway and each brought smiles in the crowd – but with a big string section behind him … wow.

I talked to Levenson back in 1998 when he was conducting an orchestra with a band that backed a Daltrey Sings Townshend tour. He told me: “We want to take away all their preconceived notions. I don’t think this sounds like a symphonic rock show, I think it sounds like a rock show with an orchestra.” 

Same here. The Who has made this a key part of this so-called “Moving On!” tour. (Another farewell feint?) The only time the band was without orchestra was a mid-set segment – or, as Townshend put it, when they wanted to give the overworked orchestra a break. The official band is Daltrey and Townshend, but the touring outfit includes Pete’s brother, guitarist Simon, keyboardist Loren Gold, new bassist Jon Button and The Who’s longtime drummer Zak Starkey.  (The brilliant madman Moon was in the seat 1964-1978; Kenney Jones occupied the chair ‘til that ’82 breakup. Ringo’s kid, Moon’s true heir, has been there since 1996, meaning he’s been there nearly double the time as Moon.)

The band ripped through “Substitute,” “I Can See for Miles” – first US hit, 1967, Townshend joking (?) most of the current audience had not yet been born – and a particularly pumped-up “You Better You Bet.” Everyone left the stage for Rog and Pete to do an acoustic “Won’t Get Fooled Again” – a nice, kinda somber, buskery-y demo-ish version, but I missed the big whoop and roar of yore. Then, they came back for “Behind Blue Eyes,” along with featured violinist Katie Jacoby and cellist Audrey Snyder. Very moving both in the soft string-y intro and then that smashing transition and crescendo when the full-on rock kicks in.

There were two new, unreleased songs, “Hero Ground Zero” and “Ball and Chain.” The Who has been beavering away on a new album, its first since 2006’s letdown, “Endless Wire,” and at this gig Townshend announced its name WHO (he kind of shrugged, no points for creativity there) and release date being Nov. 21 or 22. (It’s the 22nd.)

The Who WHO, Geffen 2019

Townshend said they’d be doing two new songs and admitted as this was all our first listen, we might not get ‘em or love ‘em as much as the others. Or something to that effect. Of the new songs, “Hero Ground Zero” had the prototypical major chord march and undeniably repetitive hooks with Daltrey singing, “I’m a hero/Ground zero” over and over again. Was this about 9/11 rescue efforts? Probably? Maybe? Couldn’t tell. “Ball and Chain” didn’t really take off and the vocal mix was poor.

Now, the main works:  Both Tommy and Quadrophenia have had orchestrated treatment previously, so this is not a “new” concept. But it’s one that worked wonders and gave The Who a chance to change things up on stage. On the past two tours, they’d gone heavy with video clips and still pix from their heyday(s), shots of the spry, young Who doing what they were doing then on screen while doing what they were doing now live in front of us. Compare, contrast and marvel or sigh. While it leant nostalgic resonance to those shows, it also suggested that as young-fresh-brash fellows as they once were, they could still pull this off with a different band lineup and craggier visages.

This time, having the orchestra behind them, made it perfect to have designed a rather elegant, luxurious set: A crinkled-curtain backdrop lit up in various combinations of blue, red and silver. Flashing lights sometimes popped on screen for emphasis. There were neon light poles that were spread out amongst the orchestra members. 

Townshend talked about the classical and rock worlds meshing. After The Who played Tommy at the Fillmore East in 1969, Leonard Bernstein came backstage raving about it, telling Townshend, “You gotta keep doing this stuff! It’s great!” Townshend: “I took his words to heart,” noting the works Who’s Next and, especially, Quadrophenia to come.

The placing of Tommy and Quadrophenia worked perfectly. Tommy’s “Overture” set the stage both for the section itself and the show – suggesting much this orchestra would contribute. Lots of credit to the sound guy for mixing band and orchestra to perfection: This was loud, but clear. When Townshend’s guitar licks were meant to rip and roar, they did; when the brass and strings were meant to swoop and soar, so did they. 

“Amazing Journey,” “Sparks” and “Pinball Wizard” were expected delights – for me, conjuring up long-ago days of being a damn good pinball player myself, inspired, yes, by Tommy. And, as they hit the end with “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” I got chills and sang along with Rog and company. An anthem of classic dimension. 

Same goes for the Quadrophenia climax of “Love Reign O’er Me.” They’d built up to it with the declarations of self “The Real Me” and “I’m One” and kicked ass on the out-of-my-brain-on-the-train rocker, “5:15” –  “Girls of fifteen/Sexually knowing/The ushers are sniffing/
Eau-de-cologne-y/The seats are seductive/Celibate sitting/Pretty girls digging/Prettier women.” When they got to the monster rush – orchestra and band all in sync, Daltrey booming out this song of love-as-redemption, all seemed right with the world. 

It ended with a full-on “Baba O’Riley” – lights-a flashing on the backing scrim, effervescent violinist Jacoby out to play and dance with Daltrey and Townshend as the song built to its frenetic close. We all revisited teenage wasteland – which somehow, again, seemed like a place we wanted to be (vicariously), a place where we were out in the fields, fighting for our meals and never needed to be forgiven for it.


VIDEO: The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” from the nosebleeds at Fenway



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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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