I saw the Who with the Clash at Shea Stadium in 1982, on what was supposed to be the band’s farewell tour. (Sorry, mom and dad, I wasn’t really “sleeping over at Trevor’s house” that night. I hope the statute of limitations on this teenage infraction has expired!) I saw the band again at the Glens Falls Civic Center doing “Tommy” in full, on what also was said to be the band’s “final tour,” in 1989. I’ve attended a half-dozen Who shows since.
The Who made itself an easy punchline target by prolonging its last goodbye over decades, but as I took in its show at KeyBank Center on Thursday it hit me that the music demanded they keep coming back. Sure, millions have been made in the process. But the enduring power of what they created together is clearly what has kept surviving founders Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey returning to the well.
Across the span of a 24-song set that employed material from the iconic “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” albums as bookends, and stuffed some well-loved hits in the middle, Townshend and Daltrey celebrated that enduring power with the help of a full house. And though the show was far from flawless – the Buffalo gig was only the second stop on the “Moving On!” tour, which will eventually visit 29 cities, and the band/orchestra configuration still had a few kinks to work out – there were moments when that old shambolic Who magic shone through.
The whole “Who with orchestra” idea was reportedly singer Daltrey’s – he’s toured performing sets of Who music with local orchestras in the past, and was eager to bring Townshend in on the deal. This was, of course, a grand idea on paper, for Townshend’s songwriting for the Who has always been intense, grandiose, deeply melodic and ambitiously arranged, making it a tenable candidate for additional orchestral interplay in the live setting.
However, marrying a loud and heavy rock band to an orchestra with a dynamic range more suited to lush concert halls than beer-soaked hockey arenas can be a dicey proposition. It didn’t take too long to see why on Thursday, for the brave opening gambit of tunes from the watershed rock-opera “Tommy” found the band and orchestra struggling to align in spots.
The seven-song opening salvo threatened to go off the rails at a few points, as the orchestra’s strict reading of time failed to fully gel with the band’s more elastic sense of the same. Contrary to what one might expect, this actually lent a sense of thrilling danger to the proceedings, reminding us that the Who is always at its most exciting when coming dangerously close to going off the rails.
By the time the “Tommy” material had been tackled, all concerned seemed to be in sync, and so an inspired take on the epic “Who Are You” became the set’s first high point, and from that point forward, the balance tilted favorably away from “orchestra/revue” and toward “full-on rock show.”
A funky, deep-pocketed “Eminence Front” found Townshend digging deeply into his dynamic rhythm/lead hybrid as a soloist, as drummer Zak Starkey and bassist Jon Button laid down the mantralike groove, and the surprising inclusion of the eloquent, rarely performed “Imagine a Man” segued into a joyous, anthemic “Join Together.” By this point, things no longer felt tentative, band and orchestra having negotiated a form of truce.
That said, when the orchestra took a break so that the band-proper – Daltrey, Townshend, Starkey, Button, guitarist/vocalist Simon Townshend (Pete’s brother) and keyboardist/vocalist Loren Gold – could play a relatively stripped-down set, it all began to feel much more like an old-school Who show.
“Substitute” and “The Kids are Alright” retained their power-pop charm, and an acoustic “Won’t Get Fooled Again” soared on the wings of Townshend’s brutally beautiful, highly aggressive acoustic guitar playing, and the newest song of the evening – “Tea & Theatre,” from the unjustly undervalued 2006 release “Endless Wire” – provided a forum for Daltrey’s road-weary but still soul-stirring singing.
The orchestra rejoined the band for a seven-song selection from the “Quadrophenia” album, and most of this was outstanding, particularly the runaway locomotive force of “5:15” and the endearingly bombastic “Love Reign O’er Me.” A closing “Baba O’Riley” was nothing short of glorious.
The jaw-dropping bombast of the old-school Who was rarely in evidence on Thursday. At several points, I found myself wishing that the drums (Starkey was fantastic throughout) were much louder in the mix, and when the orchestra was playing, Button’s bass was often inaudible, leaving the bottom end sounding a bit thin. That said, that old Who magic was often in evidence, and the timeless beauty of Townshend’s songs and the weathered majesty of Daltrey’s delivery of them carried the show.
Sometimes, as the evergreen Townshend lyric would have it, “a little is enough.”