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Concert Reviews:
The Who delivers an orchestral spectacle at Little Caesars
 

By Gary Graff
ggraff@digitalfirstmedia.com, @GraffonMusic on Twi

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DETROIT -- The metro area has seen the Who in a number of guises over the year, from an early career show at Southfield High School to giving the rock opera "Tommy" its first North American performance at the Grande Ballroom, wild parties in Flint and playing the first concert ever at the Pontiac Silverdome.

But we've never seen the iconic British rock group quite like its performance on Tuesday night, May 28, at Little Caesars Arena.

For its Moving On! Tour, the remaining duo of Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend has taken a full-on orchestral route, backed by a 49-piece ensemble in addition to their five-piece band, with arrangements by David Campbell (Beck's father) -- who also handled Daltrey's orchestral presentations of "Tommy" last summer. It's not the first time the Who has toured with an expanded music entourage but this is certainly the biggest, and potentially most quizzical, foray of its nearly 55 years.

But there's no question that it worked and gave Daltrey and Townshend, both in their mid-70s, a way to straddle a line between hoping they die before they get old and a mature musical dignity during the 24-songs, two-hour and 10-minute concert.

The Who also acknowledged its rich Detroit history prior to the band's performance with a video screen homage to Russ Gibb, the Grande Ballroom founder who passed away April 30 at the age of 89. The tribute included a series of slides, including photos of Gibb interviewing Townshend and of the Who performing at the Grande, as well as the message "Goodbye, Russ -- than you for such great times. You will be missed!"

The Who's orchestra ambitions, meanwhile, were helped by the fact the band has what Townshend calls "major works" on which to build such a show. Both "Tommy" and 1973's "Quadrophenia" were spotlighted with half-hour segments of Tuesday's show and both were richly bolstered by the orchestrations; Campbell's arrangements, conducted by Keith Levenson, were already in place for the seven "Tommy" selections, after all, while "Quadrophenia" -- particularly "The Rock" and "Love, Reign O'er Me" -- was orchestrated back in the day. In the flesh, however, everything came into a different kind of life, bold and muscular even at points where the sound mix pushed Daltrey's vocal, Townshend's guitar or Zak Starkey's drumming, its own kind of marvel, too high above the sonic fray.

The format also embellished non-rock opera songs such as "Who Are You," "Eminence Front" and the very pretty catalog rarity "Imagine a Man" and "Join Together." Campbell's arrangements throughout made the orchestrations sound of a piece with the song rather than adjuncts, as if they were imagined during the composition phase rather than, in some cases, five and a half decades later. The show-closing "Baba O'Riley" even shook the arena as the ensemble played the three-note riff in unison before violinist Katie Jacoby, one of two touring principles, recreated the original recording's solo.

It was majestic, but not TOO mature -- this is, after all, the Who, with its reputation for ramshackle energy and improvisational mettle that Daltrey and Townshend, who still twirl microphones and slash windmill-like at guitars, haven't entirely lost. During "5.15," for instance, Townshend's blazing solo seemed decidedly open-ended, with conductor Levenson patiently holding the orchestra until he got the signal from the guitarist. Daltrey and Townshend both treated some of the vocal melodies with a jazz-like daring-do, while Starkey's drum fills echoed the late Keith Moon's famously frenetic style without ever losing the pocket.

And there was the false start to "I Can See For Miles" that left all hands smiling. "It's somebody's fault," Townshend told the crowd, and Starkey seemed more than happy to take the blame.

A mid-show set sans orchestra also gave the Who a chance to stray off its usual path -- notably a more restrained rendition of "Behind Blue Eyes" featuring Jacoby and touring cellist Audrey Snyder and an intimate version of "Won't Get Fooled Again" performed acoustically by Daltrey and Townshend, with a crowd singalong during the choruses. The delivery allowed Daltrey to sidestep the trademark screams of the latter, but he was in full-throated glory later during "Love Reign O'er Me."

Townshend, meanwhile, narrated the night with a mix of sincere gratitude and self-deprecation, acknowledging the cost of tickets and other related expenses and noting that "we're so privileged to still have fans, old and new." And later on, before a solo rendition of "Quadrophenia's" "Drowned," he noted that, "I...hate this -- but I'm really good at it." We'll take the hating part with a grain of salt, of course, and rest assured that he, Daltrey and the orchestrated ensemble were more than merely good on Tuesday.



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