Without disparaging the good name of The Pretty Things, The Who really put the term ‘rock opera’ on the musical books when they created not one but two enduring works in Tommy and Quadrophenia. So what do you do when you’ve done countless tours and it seems like you’ve done it all? You go full (classical) rock and enlist the services of local musicians to create a temporary orchestra as a backing band. It might sound a tad pretentious, but honestly The Who’s songbook is much more well suited to this sort of arrangement than maybe some other bands.
Fun fact: thirty-seven years ago, I saw The Who on their farewell tour. Brushing aside condescending remarks such as “Who’s Left” or “The Two,” Roger Daltrey and Peter Townshend were able to make people realize what made this band so remarkable in the first place. I’m not going to pretend their live show has anything near the attack as when Moon was lighting off flashpots beneath his kit, or The Ox was thunderously pounding the low end while looking more stoic than a palace guard, but you can’t deny the greatness of Townshend’s composition skills and he and Daltrey looked like they were really enjoying being on stage together again. After the third song, Pete even ditched his white lab overcoat to reveal a red jumpsuit; all he needed was an SG and a couple of feet of air beneath his feet and it would have been 1969 all over again.
If you’re gonna have a few dozen musicians behind you with a multitude of instruments, there’s no better way to start off the show than with “Overture,” and Daltrey and Townshend got right down into the meat of Tommy. Playing nearly all of side A and “Pinball Wizard” felt like the absolute best way to kick off the show, and the orchestra sounded great. When you’ve got that many miles on your odometer, there’s bound to be some wear and tear. Pete still windmilled here and there and Daltrey swung his mic on its cord just like the in old days, but the big worry was how Daltrey’s voice would sound, especially since he thinks that it’s got a pretty short life expectancy. Thankfully, Dr. Steven Zietels got his voice back to operating condition a few years ago. Who knew that Boston surgeons would be responsible for getting two superstars back on stage?
A few non-rock opera songs were sprinkled in, including the obvious (“Who Are You,” “Eminence Front”) and the less obvious (two new ones that people used for a toilet/beer break, but also the sublime “Imagine A Man” from the last truly great Who record), sandwiched around two from Who’s Next, “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” which were given the acoustic treatment. The remainder of the set was focused squarely on the excellent Quadrophenia material, which with its recurring motifs feels truer to the opera form than Tommy. The strength of the orchestra behind the band became most apparent on one of the least expected songs. “The Rock” starts with the familiar three note figure that is featured prominently in “Love Reign O’er Me” and its instrumental prowess and strength was an unexpected highlight of the evening. This segued perfectly into the album closer, a true rock anthem if there was ever was one, followed by one of the great singalong fist pumpers ever created. That’s how you close down a show. Well done, mates. See you in another 37 years!