The Who brought a full orchestra and the hits to MSG (pics, setlist, review)
Rock legends The Who kicked off their “Moving On” tour just last week and Monday night (5/13) they hit NYC’s Madison Square Garden for a truly spectacular show, complete with a full orchestra and an arsenal of tried and true Who classics. The resulting 24-song show was a gorgeous and riveting experience and proof positive that original members Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, at 75 and 73 years of age respectively, are, without question, still at the top of their game.
For this tour, Roger and Pete, the only surviving members of The Who, are joined by a core group of musicians including Pete’s brother, Simon Townshend (guitar), Loren Gold (keys), Jon Button (bass), Zak Starkey (Ringo’s son)(drums), Billy Nicholls (vocals), and Katie Jacoby (violin). At each city they’re joined by a local orchestra who prove indispensable in rendering cuts from rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia to their fullest sonic depths. Last year Roger Daltrey toured Tommy with a full orchestra, while Pete Townshend toured Quadrophenia with a full orchestra back in 2017, so this “Moving On” tour felt like a micro-culmination of those particular jaunts.
What struck me first and foremost about last night’s MSG show was the complete lack of large scale projections or video walls that would normally supplement a show of this scale in an arena setting. Instead, the stage was awash with colored lights and accented with tall, thin, lighted fixtures peppered throughout. With a fancy draped backdrop and a mid-stage curtain that would occasionally hang down to obscure the back-most rows of musicians, there was a visual elegance to the proceedings. It didn’t feel pretentious or pompous; rather, it highlighted the sheer volume of musicians participating in the show and kept one’s focus on them, as opposed to some distracting pre-recorded video footage. In addition to saving the band a small fortune in production fees, the lack of video elements really made for a more artist-focused experience and I appreciated this more and more as the show went on.
The setlist itself clocked in at 24 songs, flanked at both ends by cuts from Tommy and Quadrophenia respectively, which means that the set wasn’t entirely orchestral and that there was a large break in the middle where the core band could tackle other classic Who jams. But the tunes with the orchestra sounded utterly MASSIVE. They kicked off with a Tommy medley consisting of “Overture”, “It’s a Boy”, “1921”, “Amazing Journey”, “Sparks”, “Pinball Wizard”, and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” that had the crowd losing their minds. Your boy Klaus absolutely hates the orchestralization of classic rock tunes (if you want me to punch you, put on the Symphonic Pink Floyd CD and brace yourself); but this is how these songs were intended to be heard. I can’t imagine how hard it is to mix the audio of a rock band and an orchestra in a cavernous arena, and there were a few moments the sound became a bit muddy due to, I don’t know, too much timpani in the mix, but overall it sounded fantastic. “We’re Not Gonna Take It” rocked so hard, and the vocals on “1921” sounded so gorgeous and soaring. Tommy is a great album, but it’s a bit too long and eccentric for me, so this selection was about as perfect as you can get.
After their Tommy medley, they broke into what I’d refer to as their ‘classic rock radio station’ greatest hits section which gave the orchestra musicians a pee break and included tracks from Who’s Next, Endless Wire, It’s Hard, their single Join Together, Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, The Who By Numbers, The Who Sell Out, and Who Are you?. For this greatest hits bit of the show the band has been mixing up the setlist from venue to venue, so what we got at MSG differed slightly from, say, the Van Andel Arena last week. They absolutely tore through “Who Are You” before segueing into the somewhat groovier Klaus-favorite “Eminence Front,” a song I like so much I simply had to record it in its entirety on my stupid cellphone (watch below). We also got the tour debut of “I Can See For Miles” which is another one of my favorites that I was crestfallen to see hadn’t been played yet on the tour but which I jumped out of my seat upon hearing in person last night. “Substitute,” a blazing rendition of “Won’t Get Fooled again,” and “Join Together” were among other jams they ripped through during this greatest hits set. Before they segued into the Quadrophenia portion of the show, Roger and Pete performed their acoustic duet “Tea and Theatre” which I’m sure sounded awesome but, thanks to a brawl erupting next to me in section 108, the song was rendered completely obscured by the chaos. Thanks idiots in 108!
With section 108 finally back to normal, The Who were rejoined by the orchestra and tore through a glorious 7-song selection of tunes from the great Quadrophenia album. This Quadrophenia medley consisted of “The Real Me”, “I’m One”, “The Punk and the Godfather”, “5:15″, “Drowned”, “The Rock”, and “Love, Reign O’er Me” and was probably the strongest set of the show. The core band and the orchestra were locked in and rendered these songs with true intensity and gorgeousity. At 75 years of age, I was impressed from the get-go at how strong Roger Daltrey’s voice is and at this point in the show I was beside myself with joy at how well it continued to hold up. In particular, “Love, Reign O’er Me” requires a lot of Roger, but he sounded absolutely incredible, and the accompaniment of the full band made this, for me, the greatest moment of the show.
Roger and Pete are well old and don’t jump or do their signature high-kicks anymore, but they delivered performances that were remarkable for anyone of any age. It bears repeating that Roger’s voice is still a force and he still has the lungs to sustain long vocal wails much longer than I could ever hope to. And Pete re-established himself as one of my favorite guitar players of all time. It’s not just the solos; it’s how he navigates the thing. The taps, the pulls, the dissonant chords, the windmills… he brutalizes the fucking thing and unleashes such a staggering array of sound. The tour is still early days with many more venues left to annihilate. It is an unmissable spectacle and one of the most gratifying experiences my ears have ever been through. The tour hits Jones Beach on 9/15 (tickets). More dates and last night’s setlist are below.
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The Who : Madison Square Garden: May 13, 2019
It’s a Boy
We’re Not Gonna Take It
Who Are You
Imagine a Man
I Can See for Miles
Won’t Get Fooled Again
Behind Blue Eyes
Tea & Theatre
The Real Me
The Punk and the Godfather
Love, Reign O’er Me
The Who — 2019 North American Tour Dates
5/7 Van Andel Arena Grand Rapids, MI
5/11 Jiffy Lube Live Bristow, VA
5/13 Madison Square Garden New York, NY
5/16 Bridgestone Arena Nashville, TN
5/18 Ruoff Home Mortgage Music Center Noblesville, IN
5/21 Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre Tinsley Park, IL
5/23 Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre Maryland Heights, MO
5/25 Citizens Bank Park Philadelphia, PA
5/28 Little Caesars Arena Detroit, MI
5/30 PPG Paints Arena Pittsburgh, PA
6/1 Scotiabank Arena Toronto, ON
9/6 Xcel Energy Center Saint Paul, MN
9/8 Alpine Valley Music Theatre Elkhorn, WI
9/15 Jones Beach Wantagh, NY
9/18 State Farm Arena Atlanta, GA
9/20 BB&T Center Sunrise, FL
9/22 Amalie Arena Tampa, FL
9/27 American Airlines Center Dallas, TX
9/29 Pepsi Center Denver CO
10/11 Hollywood Bowl Hollywood, CA
10/13 Hollywood Bowl Hollywood, CA
10/16 Viejas Arena at Aztec Bowl San Diego State University San Diego, CA
10/19 T-Mobile Park Seattle, WA
10/21 Rogers Arena Vancouver, BC
10/23 Rogers Place Edmonton, AB
photos by Toby Tenenbaum