“We have to play with some discipline here,” Pete Townshend told the crowd Tuesday night at Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena, as the Who opened its Moving On! Tour – add that “You might sense, in my case, a huge amount of tension.”
That’s understandable, of course. Over five-plus decades “discipline” is not exactly a word associated with the Who and its legacy; Raucous and rough ‘n’ tumble are more apt virtues in its long and tumultuous history. And that’s what makes the fully orchestrated Moving On! such a surprising and admirably ambitious late-career endeavor for Townshend and his surviving bandmate Roger Daltrey – and in the case of opening night, a two-hour and 10-minute outing that managed to be both successful and tentative at the same time.
The two Who survivors are not strangers to orchestras, of course. Both have experience with symphonic projects — Daltrey as recently as last year, when he played the group’s 1969 opus Tommy with symphony orchestras around the country. But Moving On! marks the first time the Who has gone out with an orchestrated show of its own, a decided step up from the large ensembles that backed its 1989 reunion tour and the 1996-97 Quadrophenia tour. “I just think this is a shit idea Roger had,” Townshend quipped near mid-show, with just enough bite to make it sound like he may not have been kidding.
It was hardly that, however. David Campbell arrangements for the 49-piece orchestra, which played on 18 of the night’s 22 songs, tastefully blended rock and richness, bolstering the songs with well-fitted layers of sonic shimmer and, when appropriate, bombast. The blocks of material from Tommy and Quadrophenia, already orchestrated in their own rights, not surprisingly took to the settings well; The latter’s instrumental “The Rock,” in fact, was the show’s best moment, replicating the original album version with genuinely exciting precision.
Songs from the rest of the Who’s catalog varied, meanwhile, with some faring better (the rare “Imagine a Man,” “Emminence Front”) than others (“Who Are You”). After a particularly messy “Join Together,” Townshend — who also poked fun at the sheet music on a music stand in front of him — even told the crowd, “It’s all a bit too much, I think.”
But a big part of the issue had nothing to do with the performance. As perhaps befits an opening night, the sound mix struggled throughout the show to find the right balance between band and orchestra, vocals and instruments. The effect was of disturbingly muted, and erratic, dynamics, particularly with the backing vocals and, occasionally the orchestral accompaniments. The flatness clearly didn’t represent what was happening on stage, and only Zak Starkey consistently stood out in the blend, delivering flashy fills that would make the late Keith Moon proud despite the fact Starkey was playing to a metronomic click track.
The show’s other strong moments demonstrated the potential for this new Who format, too – particularly Townshend’s strong singing on “Emminence Front” and Quadrophenia’s “I’m One” and “Drowned,” and a roaring show-closing rendition of “Baba O’ Riley,” spotlighting touring violinist Katie Jacoby. The group’s four-song, sans orchestra set was also strong, with a sparkling take on “The Kids Are Alright,” an acoustic version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (without Daltrey’s big scream), a “Behind Blue Eyes” fortified by Jacoby and cellist Audrey Snyder, and an intimate performance of 2006’s “Tea & Sympathy” by Daltrey and Townshend only. And the requisite microphone twirling by Daltrey and windmill playing by Townshend have not lost any of their appeal.
Moving On! has a long way to go, of course – and 28 more North American shows across two legs gives Townshend and Daltrey plenty of time to build it up to its promise. But even amidst Tuesday’s hit-and-miss affair, the duo could still be credited with trying on a new challenge when it could have easily played the age-old favorites in a traditional manner yet again.
The Who’s opening night setlist included:
It’s A Boy
We’re Not Gonna Take It
Who Are You
Imagine A Man
band only :
The Kids are Alright
Won’t Get Fooled Again (acoustic)
Behind Blue Eyes
Tea and Theatre (Daltrey and Townshend only)
The Punk Meets the Godfather
Love Reign O’er Me
Baba O’ Riley