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Backed by live orchestra in Pittsburgh, The Who still rocks after all these years

Legendary rockers appeal to both young and old fans in near sell-out crowd

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By Briana Wipf

Pittsburgh, Pa. – The first leg of The Who’s Moving On! tour has been getting undeniably positive reviews, and take it from me, those reviews aren’t platitudes placed at the feet of rock gods. They’re the real deal, because the band – now with only two of its original members, singer Roger Daltrey and guitarist and principle songwriter Pete Townshend – has come out swinging.

That’s fitting for The Who, a group that formed more than 50 years ago and has been righteously angry ever since.

Montanans will get a chance to see The Who on the second leg of their US tour, which centers around the American West and South, this fall. The best bets may be Denver on Sept. 29 at the Pepsi Center, Seattle on Oct. 19 at T-Mobile Park, or Vancouver, B.C., on Oct. 21 at Rogers Arena. Complete tour dates and links to purchase tickets can be found on The Who’s website.

With each show being accompanied by an orchestra, The Who can now realize portions their epic rock operas of Tommy and Quadrophenia with full musical depth. While Townshend told the crowd on May 30 in Pittsburgh that he at first was skeptical when Daltrey suggested an orchestra – adding it’s been difficult for him to play while keeping the strict timekeeping that the accompaniment requires, ultimately the experience has been positive. And it’s been a learning experience too, Townshend told the near-sellout crowd at PPG Paints Arena, home of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, even if he doesn’t know how to read the “little dots” the orchestra relies on.

Roger Daltrey, lead singer for The Who.
Courtesy photo

If one thing was clear, it’s that The Who and an orchestra go well together (Roger Daltrey recorded a full orchestral version of Tommy on his own that will be released June 14 and Townshend staged his symphonic Classic Quadrophenia in 2017). Both of the band’s rock operas and their overall bombast lends themselves to the sweep and depth an orchestra can lend. Listening to the “Overture” from Tommy, which kicked off the show, it seems obvious that this is how their music should be consumed.

The orchestra, conducted by Keith Levenson, will join The Who on the second leg of their tour, which begins later this year. Ultimate Classic Rock is reporting that the band may add a couple new songs to their set list, include tracks from their new album, which will be released around Christmas. While the orchestra is new in every city The Who plays, violinist Katie Jacoby and cellist Audrey Snyder are constants. They join the band in a haunting rendition of Behind Blue Eyes, which created one of the most memorable moments of the concert. Imagine thousands of people singing the words to a song that speaks to the alienated in all of us – it was a moment of community to realize that we’ve all identified with a song about intense loneliness.

Daltrey and Townshend also recruited a stellar touring band, including Townshend’s brother, Simon, on guitar, bassist Jon Button, drummer Zak Starkey and keyboardist Loren Gold. Original drummer Keith Moon’s style is legendary, and while Starkey doesn’t try to imitate it, his skill is undeniable. Button, too, has big shoes to fill following John Entwistle but does so impressively. Pete Townshend’s guitar chops were on full display, including his famous windmill strumming. Daltrey is perhaps the most underrated lead singer in rock, and his voice still sounds tremendous.  

Throughout the concert, the music was always front and center – and that’s good for a band with so many hits it’s hard to keep track of them all. After several songs from Tommy, including Pinball Wizard, The Who settled into several staples, including Who Are You, I Can See for Miles, You Better You Bet, Won’t Get Fooled Again, and Baba O’Riley, whose legendary fiddle ending was expertly handled by Jacoby.

Daltrey and Townshend, the lone surviving members of the British foursome (Moon died in 1978 and Entwistle passed away in 2002), played two songs as an acoustic duet, Won’t Get Fooled Again and Tea and Theatre. Some fans in the audience were disappointed they opted not to electrify Won’t Get Fooled Again, one of the band’s angriest anthems, but the acoustic version forced both musicians to perform the song differently and forced the audience to listen differently too.

Pete Townshend, guitarist and songwriter with The Who. Courtesy photo

While much of the crowd were part of The Who’s generation, a good portion were Gen X-ers and Millennials, proving that classic rock has enjoyed a Dorian Gray-like staying power. But The Who’s lyrics also may appeal to Millennials in ways I hadn’t considered until attending the concert. With apologies to Tom Morello and Zack De La Rocha, The Who are the original Ragers-Against-The-Machine. Their contempt for an older generation and defense of their own fits perfectly with millennial angst. After “Substitute,” Daltrey opined that the song contains one of the best lines in rock ‘n roll: “I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth.”

For my money, however, I wouldn’t say that’s their best line. It’s actually the final line of Won’t Get Fooled Again: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

As for why The Who is eternally relatable, just look at the generations ground down by the Great Recession, student loan debt, stagnating wages, job markets and political upheaval. We can read The Who’s songs as our own, proving that not much changes over the decades.

Same as the old boss indeed.

Briana Wipf is a freelance writer and PhD student studying medieval literature. A Cut Bank native, she lives in Pittsburgh, Pa., with her husband, Jesse (the real Who fan in the relationship and also a writer himself), and their lovable dog, Bob. She graciously writes for Big Sky State Buzz on occasion, as well. Check out her other articles here. Follow her on Twitter at @Briana_Wipf.

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