The Who with a Symphony Orchestra

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Two months ago we saw a Who tribute band in Chicago, and while that was fun, there’s no substitute (excuse the pun) for the real thing. Fifty-five years after forming The Who, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey are still rocking and still innovating. We were lucky enough to catch them in Tinley Park, near Chicago, on May 21st, and we’ll be seeing them again at Alpine Valley in September.

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The Who at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater

It’s gone by many names: World Music Theater, Tweeter Center, and now, the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater. As far as outdoor venues are concerned, it has pretty good viewing and acoustics, no matter where you sit. My biggest complaint about the place is that they don’t allow pre-show tailgating. Many bands and fans boycott Tinley Park because of that. But when The Who comes to town, we’re there!

I bought a pair of tickets in the lawn seating area and then was bummed when the weather forecast predicted a cold and rainy evening. It’s been a wet week, and the lawn was already muddy. As we were looking for a semi-dry place to hang out, a vendor asked if we wanted to upgrade to pavilion seats for an extra $10/ticket. I jumped on that, and the next thing you know, we’re in row LL, under a roof, and with much better visibility and acoustics. $20 well spent!

A pair of Happy Wholigans with upgraded seats

A Little Backstory

As we settled into our seats, I was reminded of the night Lisa and I met almost 32 years ago. We were at a bar and she wasn’t happy with the pop songs that the DJ was playing. I asked her what kind of music she liked and she responded, “The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin … stuff like that.” I thought, “Damn, she just hit three of my top ten, including my all-time favorite!” (Later that evening when she brought up The Grateful Dead, I almost asked her to marry me on the spot!)

Anyway, back to the show…

The Who Was on Second; Reignwolf Opened

The opening act was Reignwolf, a power trio from Canada. They call themselves an indie blues-rock band, but I’d say they leaned more toward hard rock than blues. They did perform a decent half-hour set, capped off by frontman Jordan Cook playing guitar and drums at the same time.

One band-man
Jordan Cook of Reignwolf

The Who with Full Orchestra

This tour features The Who’s normal touring band, plus a 48-piece symphony orchestra, conducted by Keith Levenson. Unlike their 50th anniversary tour, in which they played mostly radio songs, this one digs deeper into their catalog, highlighting their two rock operas and a few other rarely-played gems. The combination of rock and orchestra added a great twist to some familiar tunes, and the classical musicians looked like they were enjoying their gig with a rock band.

Tommy, Can You Hear Me?

The show opened with Overture, It’s a Boy, and 1921 from Tommy and immediately, everyone was on their feet. The studio version of Tommy is great, the live versions from back in the 70s are spectacular, but there’s something special when it’s accompanied by a symphony orchestra.

The night before, I was in our living room playing guitar, and I strummed my version of Amazing Journey, which I learned to play about a year ago. After I finished, I told Lisa, “Tomorrow night you’ll hear a much better version of that song.” And sure enough, we did! Amazing Journey led into the instrumental Sparks, followed by the ever-popular Pinball Wizard, and they wrapped up the Tommy set with We’re Not Gonna Take It.

Who Are They?

Roger picked up his acoustic guitar and played the intro to Who Are You, with the full band and orchestra eventually jumping in. Next was Eminence Front, a song that Pete sings and frequently forgets the lyrics to. This time, he seemed to forget the whole second verse, opting instead to play a guitar solo in place of the words. Imagine a Man came next, a deep cut from The Who by Numbers, accompanied by a violin and cello, and Join Together turned into an audience participation event because … well, that’s what the song is about.

Who Are They?
Who Are They?

The Orchestra Took a Break

The orchestra then left the stage because, according to Pete, they work the hardest … and, he joked, they have a really strong union. The core band performed a handful of songs, including The Seeker (one of my favorites), Behind Blue Eyes (another audience sing-along), and a very cool acoustic version of Won’t Get Fooled Again, featuring just Pete and Roger. The duo also played Tea & Theatre, a mellow, introspective piece from their 2006 album Endless Wire.

Quadrophenia: The Other Rock Opera

The orchestra returned from their break and joined together with the band to play The Real Me and several others from Quadrophenia (my favorite studio album), including I’m One, The Punk and the Godfather, and 5:15. The band took five while Pete sang and played an acoustic version of Drowned, with a blistering solo showing that his high-speed strumming abilities are fully intact. The instrumental The Rock was a treat, too, especially enhanced by the orchestra. I think those two songs were chosen specifically to give Roger’s voice a rest, so he could give it all on Love, Reign O’er Me. It worked – he belted out a great version!

The Finale

I have to admit, although Baba O’Riley is a crowd-pleaser, it’s not high on my list of favorite Who songs. The studio version features a violin solo; played live, Roger usually does a harmonica solo instead, which I do enjoy. But hey, when you’ve got a full orchestra, you bring the first violinist out for that solo. Katie Jacoby did an excellent rendition, even engaging in a little “dueling” with Pete during the fast parts. Roger got another break, not having to play the solo, and he also got a nice hug and kiss from Katie at the end. Good gig, huh?

The Who is doing some experimenting with the setlist and the arrangements, keeping the music fresh, so I’m really happy to have seen them early in the tour and I’m looking forward to hearing how the performance evolves between now and September when we see them again. If they’re coming your way, do yourself a favor and score some tickets!

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