By Tom Siebert
The Who don’t do drugs anymore, their mad-genius drummer and brilliant bassist having sadly succumbed to overdoses in 1978 and 2002, respectively. And it has been decades since the visionary, explosive rock band closed their concerts by nihilistically destroying their instruments.
But last night, a renewed Who elevated their storied songs to stratospheric heights before more than 25,000 fans at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre in Tinley Park, during the Chicago-area stop of their 31-date Moving On symphonic tour.
Rock giants Roger Daltrey and Peter Townshend fronted an astonishing musical assemblage comprised of their stellar seven-piece backing band and a magnificent 48-piece orchestra, some of them local musicians, conducted by Keith Levenson and arranged by David Campbell.
“Thanks for coming out tonight,” Mr. Townshend said to the frozen people who braved 50-degree weather to see the fabled performers. “We’ll try to warm things up a bit.”
That they did. The first elegant eight songs were from 1969’s “Tommy,” The Who’s groundbreaking rock opera about an emotionally and physically challenged boy who becomes a pinball wizard/pop guru.
Mr. Townshend, who turned 74 the other day, wrote the famed concept album to heal from his own childhood sexual abuse.
And the original guitar hero seemed to still be playing his instrument as a catharsis, hunching over it, attacking the strings, and flying his fingers up and down the frets–then standing survivor-tall with his trademark windmill power-strumming.
Mr. Daltrey, now 75 and a survivor himself of meningitis and throat cancer, sang the soaring refrain from “See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me” with vigor and vulnerability, pointing at members of the Tinley Park throng.
“Listening to you, I get the music. Gazing at you, I get the heat. Following you, I climb the mountain. I get excitement at your feet. Right behind you, I see the millions. On you, I see the glory. From you, I get opinions. From you, I get the story.”
The delighted crowd got the story, the glory–and the lyrics right–singing along, smiling, and tearing up with emotion.
It was an eclectic audience that spanned at least three generations: Baby Boomers who perhaps first listened to Who albums in smoke-filled dorm rooms; their adult kids, who are all right; and younger aficionados, who were likely introduced to the band’s iconic songs from the opening credits of TV’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” trilogy.
About 10,000 fans sat in the reserved seating section of the scenic outdoor amphitheater, while another 15,000 or so huddled on blankets or beach chairs in the sprawling lawn area, bathed in the sparkling colored lights streaming from the titanic stage.
The gifted orchestra somehow made violins sound like guitar solos and inserted majestic flourishes to The Who’s writ-large songs with cellos, bassoons, French horns, a harp, and timpani.
After the “Tommy” set, the orchestra exited the stage, leaving the core band members to thrill the crowd with legendary rock standards.
Mr. Daltrey good-naturedly noted the cold wind blowing in his face and shouted out, “Don’t you people know it’s nearly summer?!”
His band mate of 55 years added: “We love Chicago. Everyone seems to be so warm and friendly, except the ones who aren’t so warm and friendly–just like home.”
The showstopper of the enchanted evening was a surprising acoustic rendition of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” an epic song from 1971’s classic “Who’s Next” album.
The frigid fans, many of whom were dressed as if they were at a Chicago Bears game in mid-December, warmed up by standing, dancing, and chiming in word for word–including the song’s cynical, lyrical conclusion about the political revolution of the late 1960s: “Meet the new boss! Same as the old boss!”
Mr. Daltrey, whose performing skills include singing, mike tossing, tambourine banging, and harmonica playing, donned an acoustic guitar and strummed credibly during “Eminence Front,” a mesmerizing electronic funk from 1982’s “It’s Hard” album.
A violin-driven version of 1971’s “Behind Blues Eyes” gave added drama and depth to the bittersweet ode to codependency.
Roger and Pete were joined together on stage by violinist Katie Jacoby, vocalist Billy Nichols, and regular band members Simon Townshend on guitar, Loren Gold on keyboards, Jon Button on bass, and drummer Zak Starkey–whose father, Ringo Starr, used to play with a little band called The Beatles.
The Who could not and did not perform all of their many greatest hits. I was disappointed that they did not do “You Better You Bet,” a quirky love song whose ironic, yearning verses have been heard on rock radio since 1981.
But this was no loose “Freebird” type of concert. No, it was an immovable feast of precisely measured music that required exquisite timing among the 55 master musicians who often shared the stately stage.
The massive symphonic assault of the senses was at once thrilling and even more chilling than the Windy City weather.
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the night was achieved by just Pete and Roger dueting a pretty offering of “Tea & Theatre,” from their 2006 album “Endless Wire.”
“Two of us–we will have some tea,” sang Mr. Daltrey, wearing a black down jacket and raising a cup of tea to Mr. Townshend as the moving ballad drew to a close.
Watching this emotional scene, I could not help but recall The Who’s star-crossed history. As children, they played in the rubble of post-war Britain.
Mr. Townshend has said his melancholy lyrics and scorched-earth sounds grew out of his Cold War generation’s growing up under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation.
Then, on Sept. 7, 1978, their comedic, dynamic drummer Keith Moon died in his London flat after consuming 32 tablets of clomethiazole, which had been prescribed to ease his alcohol withdrawal.
Many more losses came on December 3, 1979, when 11 young Who fans were stampeded to death prior to a concert at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati. The horrific tragedy led to nationwide bans on festival seating, where the first to enter music venues got the spots closest to the stage.
And original member John Entwistle, who was voted the greatest bass player ever in a Rolling Stone magazine readers’ polls, died at age 57 from a cocaine-induced heart attack in a hotel room in Paradise, Nevada, on June 27, 2002.
So the change, well, it had to come. Last week, Mr. Daltrey cussed out a fan in Nashville for lighting up a joint, saying that he was allergic to marijuana smoke and it adversely affected his voice.
But through it all, the band played on, right up to last night’s mega-gig at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre.
The third act of the two-and-a-half-hour, 24-song show featured orchestrated numbers from The Who’s 1974 magnum opus, “Quadrophenia.”
The highlight was that album’s “Love Reign O’er Me,” which began with a dramatic piano interlude by Mr. Gold and reached rock ‘n’ roll high heaven with Mr. Daltrey’s up, up, and away wailing of the chorus line.
I attended The Who’s allegedly final U.S. concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1982. And if their lead singer has lost a step or note, I couldn’t tell.
The same goes for Mr. Townshend. He seems to be ever exploring the sonic depths of his guitar. And they have a new CD coming out later this year.
The encore was the anthemic “Baba O’Riley (Teenage Wasteland),” propelled by Ms. Jacoby’s stunning violin solo.
Most everyone yelled out on cue rock’s most-famous last line, “They’re all wasted!”
If you missed this once-in-a-lifetime performance, The Who will be destroying audiences at venues across the nation throughout the summer and fall, including a concert on September 8 at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in Elkhorn, Wisconsin.
But wherever they play, from Woodstock to the Super Bowl to Tinley Park, The Who’s still on first.