We're Not Gonna Take It
Pete banter about Tommy musical coming to Chicago
Who Are You
Another Tricky Day
Won't Get Fooled Again
Won't Get Fooled Again
Behind Blue Eyes
Behind Blue Eyes
Love Reign O'er Me
Review by Jeff Elbel
Pete Townshend combined the experience from his Classic Quadrophenia shows with Roger Daltrey’s run of symphonic solo shows performing Tommy when building The Who Hits Back! tour. The Who’s core six-piece band was augmented by longtime collaborator Billy Nicholls, three traveling string soloists, and a locally-sourced 45-piece orchestra that added power to Townshend’s majestic rock compositions. “They work a lot harder than we do,” said Townshend. “Well, harder than I do,” he added after glancing at Daltrey.
When Daltrey stepped to center stage and raised a pair of tambourines overhead, every returning Who concertgoer knew that the band were ready to begin the program with a suite of six songs outlining 1969’s groundbreaking rock opera Tommy. Songs including the opening “Overture” were right at home with the orchestral accompaniment. Drummer Zak Starkey fused his thunder with the strings and brass while doing honor to the late Keith Moon during bombastic instrumental “Sparks.” Daltrey sang with theatricality and strong voice during the scene-setting “1921.” Nicholls and Townshend added bold harmony to “Amazing Journey.” After taking a couple of beats to synchronize the band and orchestra, Townshend lashed into his red Stratocaster with ferocity during “Pinball Wizard.” Townshend took broad windmill swings at his guitar while Daltrey stood at his side slinging his microphone through the air, making their signature moves as the classic rock radio staple reached its crescendo. The Tommy songs finished with “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and its grand “listening to you” coda. “We haven’t got much hearing left, but we’re always listening to you,” joked Daltrey. Townshend added that the Broadway production of Tommy would be returning to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre soon.
A batch of standalone songs also received symphonic flourish, including a feral “Who Are You.” Townshend sang lead vocal on the moody “Eminence Front,” upending the familiar radio single’s cadence like a jazz singer with a gravelly voice. Next, he introduced a newer song. “I know it’s hard to beat the material we made when we were 12,” joked Townshend, but he explained how enthusiastic Daltrey had been to record 2019’s Who album. The band performed a brash version of protest anthem “Ball and Chain.” The string players left the stage as classic singalong “Join Together” began, leaving the core band with bold brass accompaniment.
A run of songs were then performed by the engine of the rock band alone. Daltrey played acoustic guitar while singing the expressive “Naked Eye.” Townshend’s younger brother Simon added acoustic guitar and vocal harmony to “Relay.” Townshend refused to act his proper age and flashed a few of his best club moves before launching “Another Tricky Day,” featuring Loren Gold’s sparkling piano. “You know when you’re at a party and some old man dances …,” he said, trailing off with a grin. “I’m 77.” The crowd roared. “When I dance, it actually looks quite good,” he added. The core band set concluded with the three principal string players for a stirring “Behind Blue Eyes” that filled the arena with thousands of voices.
The orchestra returned for the cornerstone songs of 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia. Bassist Jon Button tackled late bassist John Entwistle’s challenging parts during a ferocious “The Real Me” and the chugging “5:15.” Simon Townshend added twanging Telecaster licks to his big brother’s acoustic guitar during the confessional “I’m One.” Instrumental “The Rock” was a glorious peak performance between band and orchestra. Townshend said that not every stop on their tour included classical players who knew how to rock, but praised the Chicago-based musicians’ ability to deliver the goods.
The show was far from perfect, but the spirit was right. The format of the show was inherently risky, and occasional stumbles were encountered. Townshend buried his face in his hands in jest but perhaps a whiff of actual embarrassment after leaving Daltrey high and dry and the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” The Who have performed the song for more than 50 years, but not with an orchestra and conductor. The orchestra and technology clashed again at the top of “Love Reign O’er Me,” causing Daltrey to declare a do-over. Afterward, Townshend threw keyboardist Loren Gold under the bus, but it was clearly in jest. It has to be said that Daltrey’s voice was impressive on both songs, with uncommon physicality and tone for a rock singer at 78. Ultimately, the Who had the audience on their side and the show came across with a sense of cathartic fun and ragged glory.
The show came to a conclusion with a bristling “Baba O’Riley,” featuring violinist Katie Jacoby’s dervish solo as she and Townshend sparred playfully at stage left.
The band’s parting blessings were heartfelt. Daltrey acknowledged that it had been another tough year, but didn’t despair. “We all go down, and we go up again,” he said. “It means so much that you came to be here with us. Be happy, be healthy, but most of all, be lucky!” Townshend’s final words were practical. “We know how much it costs to do this,” he said, pointing around the room while naming ancillary expenses to tickets including babysitting and parking lots. “All that bollocks,” he called it. “Thank you so much! We appreciate it.”
“Hope we’ll be back,” Townshend had said with a laugh a few minutes earlier, taking a self-deprecating pot-shot at the band’s vintage. As long as Daltrey and Townshend remain fit and willing to shake up what it means to mount a Who tour as they did on Wednesday, fans should hope for the same.
Jeff Elbel: ping.bandcamp.com
This review appears with photos at illinoisentertainer.com.