The Who prove that there’s no ‘substitute’ for classic rock

 

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If last Thursday evening was Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend’s last stand in Buffalo under the ‘Who’ moniker, no one can ever say that they took the easy way out. The sprightly septuagenarians rejected the hits (mostly) in favor of an experimental scenario in which a 48-piece orchestra had the responsibility of making “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” soar in a way that younger generations were unable to experience the first time around.

In theory, it was a boom-or-bust move with the potential to further alienate those who  still believe that the band was finished the moment Keith Moon took too much Clomethiazole. In practice, it was actually an amazing journey through some of the greatest rock music ever recorded while the extra musicians provided just enough oomph without compromising the integrity of the material. Not everything was perfect, but there was something inspiring about how Daltrey and Townshend appeared willing to work things out on the fly.

Kicking off with side one of “Tommy” was a given, as the orchestra made its presence felt during a shimmering trio of “Overture/It’s a Boy,” “1921,” and “Amazing Journey” that initiated an emptying of the audience’s nasolacrimal ducts that would continue until long after the final bows were taken. Adding strings to compositions that already lent themselves to the operatic treatment heightened their emotional impact and proved that the passage of time has done nothing to lessen the double album’s mystical accessibility.

Townshend’s themes of spirituality, repetition compulsion, and the war between self and illusory self are among the most ambitious ever tackled within the rock format, so, while others may have preferred to hear “My Generation” or “I Can’t Explain” for the umpteenth time, hearing Daltrey cry out “See Me, Feel Me” in a live setting was special for me.

Because Buffalo was only the second stop on the Moving On! tour, the setlist was shuffled around to reflect what worked and what didn’t in Grand Rapids two nights prior, so fans were anxious to see what surprises would make it out of the bag. Boisterous versions of “Who Are You” and “Join Together” were followed by a killer take on “Substitute” that packed every ounce of mid-60s angst it could into three minutes. 

The standout of the first half was a stripped-down “Won’t Get Fooled Again” featuring nothing but Roger’s weathered but strong vocal and Pete’s acoustic Gibson J200 accompaniment, a pairing that left everyone in the suddenly small room wondering if they would ever see again. Both were in fine form throughout the show and delivered everything a true fan of The Who could expect at this point in the band’s 50+ year run. 

When the orchestra returned to the stage, “Quadrophenia” classics such as “The Real Me,” “5:15,” and “The Rock” were executed to perfection before the grand finale took hold. Daltrey nailed his scream on the transcendent “Love, Reign O’er Me” and Townshend’s youthful exuberance during the bridge of “Baba O’Riley” was the kind of epic concert moment that makes one feel as if they’re a richer person for having experienced its grandeur.

Regardless of the sonic concessions that were made to accommodate the orchestra, the night felt like a fitting way for The Who to say goodbye to Buffalo. For the power lied in the audience’s undying love for the catalog and the band’s unyielding passion for delivering it.

 

 

           

 

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