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The Who is Moving On! with orchestra tour, new album
When he waxes philosophical about the Who, Pete Townshend says that he and singer Roger Daltrey "often feel like half a band" after the deaths of drummer Keith Moon in 1978 and bassist John Entwistle in 2002.
But this year the living half of one of rock's most legendary bands is working double-time.
Townshend and Daltrey are on the road with the Who's Moving On! Tour, the first time the group has ever gone out playing with full orchestras at every show. On top of that they're making a new Who album, the band's first since "Endless Wire" in 2006 and one that current drummer Zak Starkey says "sounds much more like the Who, the REAL Who" than its predecessor.
"We've got a busy year ahead, but it's a lot of fun," Townshend, the group's guitarist and main songwriter, says by phone. "It's all play. The studio stuff and the music stuff, that's what I love to do. I'm kind of tickled by what we've taken on here. We shall see what happens.
"Roger and I are both aware we have a brand now which is bigger than both of us," Townshend, 74, continues. "When we get together underneath that (Who) banner we are conferred with a magical sprinkling of historical stardust that attracts an audience that is not just old fans. It's curious young people. It's people who are interested in our legacy where we fit into history."
Daltrey, 75, concurs, adding that after 55 years together — including landmark shows at Southfield High School, Detroit's Grande Ballroom, where the Who premiered its 1969 rock opera "Tommy," and the first show ever at the Pontiac Silverdome — "there's a certainly chemistry in both Pete and I as individuals. We're very good on our own, but you put us together and there's a chemistry that happens and it's reflected in the way we play. We're more than the sum of our parts, and it's palpable. Fans talk to me all the time; They say, 'There's something magical about the Who. When you're together on stage, there's an energy that's created.'
"And I don't know where it comes from. Maybe it's kind of the subconscious competition, ego competition. I don't know, but whatever it is I don't challenge it. I don't think too hard about it. When it gives us up, the Who will be over, but so far — touch wood — it's been still there."
It was Daltrey who pushed the idea for the Who to tour with an orchestra this year. Both men have worked with symphonies in the past. Daltrey staged "A Celebration: The Music of Pete Townshend and the Who" during the mid-90s, was part of the British Rock Symphony during 1999 and played the Who's rock opera "Tommy" with orchestras last year. "It's just magical," says Daltrey, who's releasing an album from the tour on June 14. "It's got all the balls of the Who's original version of it, but it's got all these wonderful bits of orchestration underneath it that make it triumphant."
Townshend, meanwhile, collaborated with his wife, Rachel Fuller, on "Classic Quadrophenia," a symphonic version of the Who's other full rock opera, with Britain's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 2015.
"(Daltrey's) 'Tommy' tour set a benchmark for this tour," Townshend acknowledges, noting that "there was starting to be a Groundhog Day feeling about a setlist that varied so little and ... stuck to a set of well-known hits" at Who shows. "Roger wasn't bored the way I was, but he wanted to try something new and more dignified."
Daltrey adds that, "It would be easy to go out and do what we've always done, but ... why? It's a really, really difficult thing, but I think that's what I'm looking for right now, something different."
Starkey, the son of Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, says he's been well aware that "it's always been Roger's dream to do the Who with an orchestra" but notes that "there was a little bit of to and fro between him and Pete about it."
During the tour opener, in fact, Townshend acknowledged "a huge amount of tension" and groused, somewhat comically, that "this is a s*** idea Roger had." Now, however, Starkey says Townshend "has learned how it goes" and that "everyone's enjoying" the show, which includes truncated performances of "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia" along with other Who favorites — orchestra arrangements by musician Beck's father, composer David Campbell — and a mid-concert set featuring the band without orchestra.
"I am happy with what we are doing," Townshend says. "It is challenging ... especially when I want to play a mad guitar solo full of bum notes. Often, when I get back into my brain, I am out of time with everyone. They haul me back in like a naughty kid who runs away in a station when the locomotive is about to arrive.
"It does feel right now. And I am enjoying it. Unusual for me — I prefer songwriting and the studio to live shows."
The Who will play a second leg of North American Moving On! shows later this year, and Starkey voices a hope that "we'll carry on, maybe next year."
"It's a dignified way for them to operate at — I don't want to say their age, now — but it's just a little more dignified than us fighting it out on stage every night, seeing who's gonna win," Starkey says.
If next year does transpire, there likely will be new Who music to perform, as well. Townshend reports that the new album is "90 percent done," with co-producer Dave Sardy "working on fine details as we conduct this tour." Making new music was one of Townshend's prerequisites for agreeing to tour with the Who — even if the new material, which includes songs "rescued from ancient history" as well as new compositions, doesn't coincide with the trek.
"I wrote songs that I hoped Roger would love — that was really the only prerequisite," Townshend says. "I just tried to write songs I thought he could get inside and that would interest him and intrigue him and challenge him.
"The reaction to what we've done so far from our record companies is overwhelmingly positive. I don't think Who fans, people who like Who music, will be overly surprised. Quite a few people that heard my demos said, 'What's great about these demos, Pete, is they do sound like you but they also sound new,' so hopefully that's what we'll achieve.
"I haven't felt so good about a forthcoming album since 'Who's Next' (in 1971)."
The Who and Arkells perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 28, at Little Caesars Arena, 2645 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $68 and up. Call 313-471-7000 or visit 313Presents.com.
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