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Review: The Who breathe new life into the classics at orchestral show

Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend of The Who
Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend of The Who perform onstage during Desert Trip at The Empire Polo Club on Oct. 9, 2016 in Indio, Calif. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Desert Trip)

The Who landed at Xcel Energy Center on Friday night, continuing the St. Paul venue’s recent monthly streak of hosting legendary British rockers – following ELO in July and Queen in August.

For this tour, dubbed Moving On, the Who enlisted the musical forces of a 48-piece orchestra. So, naturally, suites from the band’s rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia each starred in the two symphonic sets that bookended the 130-minute show.

Tommy kicked off with the “Overture” and cruised through other tunes before it burst to life with “Pinball Wizard.” The segment ended with the captivating “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

The concert picked up with the band’s iconic “Who Are You.” At 75, lead singer Roger Daltrey has slowed some onstage and his range has diminished, but his vocals are just as powerful and vibrant as ever. The song was a tour de force.

“Eminence Front” continued to impress, highlighted by slinky strings, guitarist Pete Townshend’s full-throated singing and an understated, but effective, light show. Daltrey added a new level to his performance with his heartfelt delivery of “Imagine a Man,” followed by an indifferent run-through of the new tune “Hero Ground Zero.”

At this point, the orchestra, which had played on all of the aforementioned songs under the direction of Keith Levenson, took a union-mandated break. Freed from the restraints of playing to conducted music, the band – including backup vocalist Billy Nicholls, guitarist Simon Townshend (Pete’s younger brother), keyboardist Loren Gold, bassist Jon Button and drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr’s son) – felt looser and more energized.

They blazed through a tight rendition of 1966’s “Substitute,” which sounded fabulous, despite Townshend’s follow-up claim that “when we play songs like that that I’ve played 1000 times, I kind of go off in the blue.” A vocally rich “I Can See for Miles” and a jaunty “The Seeker” followed.

A bare-boned “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” with just Daltrey on vocals and a harmonizing Townshend on his feverishly strummed acoustic guitar, breathed new life into a rock classic. Violinist Katie Jacoby and cellist Audrey Snyder added poignancy to Daltrey’s emotional delivery of the ballad “Behind Blue Eyes” to cap the midshow band-only set.

The only negative of this portion was what was missing from it. Previous stops on the tour got the infectious 1981 hit “You Better You Bet.” Sigh.

The orchestra returned for a crescendo-building “Join Together,” featuring rock music’s most famous solo by a mouth harp (or whatever you want to call the sproing-y metallic device), and Townshend’s recent tune “Guantanamo” and its haunting string breaks.

The orchestra’s greatest moments came via the extended Quadrophenia segment, punctuated by two vocal spectaculars – Daltrey on “Love Reign Over Me” and Townshend on “I’m One” – and the show-stopping instrumental “The Rock.”

The concert closed with the epic, but uneven, “Baba O’Riley” (aka “Teenage Wasteland”), which received an enthusiastic reception from the nearly full arena. Jacoby, who should have been spotlighted more, acquitted herself nicely on the well-known violin solo.

The evening ended oddly with a talk by Daltrey about the band’s charity Teen Cancer America, a slow exit from the stage and lights up. But after 55 years, the Who showed that they don’t need an orchestra to put on a dandy show – even though it was a cool way to see them.

The energetic Reignwolf delivered a chest-thumping, distortion-filled opening set that channeled the blues-rock of Jimi Hendrix more than the hard rock of the Who. But frontman Jordan Cook gave a shout-out to the headliners by dedicating his tune “Black and Red” to Townsend — “one of our heroes” — whom they said they met for the first time the day of the show. While the trio might not have been every Who fan’s cup o’ tea, it certainly created an exhilarating sonic experience.

Cook’s cavalier handling of his guitars later became a running joke for Townshend, who infamously smashed some axes in his younger days. The Who were there to “bring some discipline after all that anarchy of Reignwolf,” Townshend quipped. “No guitar smashing here!”


With Orchestra
Amazing Journey
Pinball Wizard
We’re Not Gonna Take It
Who Are You
Eminence Front
Imagine a Man
Hero Ground Zero

Band Only
I Can See for Miles
The Seeker
Won’t Get Fooled Again
Behind Blue Eyes (with violin & cello accompanists)

With Orchestra
Join Together
Guantanamo (Pete Townshend song)
The Real Me
I’m One
The Rock
Love, Reign O’er Me
Baba O’Riley