The Who made a rapturously received return trip to the Hollywood Bowl last weekend, playing on both Friday and Sunday to virtually full houses. It’s their first appearance there in thirteen years, despite having chosen it as their LA venue four times in a row in the early to mid 2000s. But it made a certain sense for them to be there in 2019, as their Moving On! tour scenario this year has the electric band lineup backed by a symphony orchestra. They’ve flirted with big-band instrumentation in the past, with results that can generously be described as “mixed”, but this particular show made a lot of smart choices in the planning, and was delivered in the moment with all the intensity that this group is capable of.
This kind of show is a natural for the Bowl, where it’s not uncommon to see the LA Phil perched behind amps, drum sets and even turntables. The sound system, stage setup (once described by Pete Townshend as resembling a “testicle factory”), and natural acoustics all work in the artists’ favor. Opening with the overture from Tommy, the sound of the full ensemble was massive, but stunningly detailed, Pete Townshend’s guitar slicing through the wall of sound. Roger Daltrey sang with real authority, the best performances of any I’ve seen of his in the last decade. And though I was not a great fan of the sound of his electronic drum kit – obviously a concession to the string players sharing his space – drummer Zak Starkey’s playing was particularly lively and unpredictable.
The show took on a somewhat unfamiliar structure – a chunk of Tommy, followed by a traditional mid-show set of songs, a chunk of Quadrophenia, then “Baba O’Riley” and out with no encores. To someone who’s seen a lot of Who shows in the last two decades, this re-jigging of the normal way of doing things really was a success. They broke out the never-before-played “Imagine A Man,” one of Townshend’s most haunting and lovely compositions, and a perfect companion for the lush orchestration.
The orchestral additions were actually more organic than some of the nuances that the Who were indulging in on their last tour, with multiple synthesizer players on the side of the stage adding what amounted to sound effects from the original albums. And unlike some of their previous efforts, the arrangements really respected the original versions, true in spirit if not to every note.
While both performances were incredible, the highlights differed to this reporter. On Friday, the segment that really knocked me for a loop was the center point, while the orchestra was taking a break, and the core band did three brilliant pop singles in a row – “The Kids Are Alright”, “Substitute” and “You Better You Bet”. The latter was never a favorite of mine, but here, it felt like the equal of its sixties counterparts. And who can resist singing along to a line like “I got your body like I want my mind/ but I drunk myself blind to the sound of old T. Rex.” That’s a good line.
Sunday night, it was the opening of Quad, “The Real Me” into “I’m One.” So many people talk about this work as being about “my own life” even though they never fought with rockers or rode scooters or rioted in Brighton. It’s the stuff that everybody can relate to, parents giving you a hard time, the other kids not sure if you measured up despite your great effort to do what they were doing, and that all came into clear focus under a full moon. Townshend’s guitar playing was searing on “Real Me,” some of his most expressive playing of the run. And both nights, it needs to be said, the opening moments of the Tommy overture in full grandiose volume were jaw-dropping.
Townshend insists he “doesn’t enjoy” performing, just that he knows he’s “good at it,” but long time fans have learned to affectionately call bullshit on the man from time to time. He looked in especially good spirits at these shows, complimenting the city of LA for its proliferation of “cool dudes.”
Miraculously, the shows even included some new information, previews of two songs from the forthcoming album WHO. “Ball And Chain” is a stiff blues about Guantanamo, “Hero Ground Zero” an inspiring tale of sacrifice. They’re not the soundtrack to our lives, but they’re pretty good songs. The best track yet released from the album, an old fashioned Townshend rant titled “All This Music Must Fade,” was not performed, unfortunately.
The night ended with “Baba O’Riley,” which received its own twist. That song is one of the Who’s crowd-pleasers, played at every single gig, but most audiences have never seen one of its signature bits performed live – the violin solo at the end, which is always approximated on harmonica by Daltrey. But this time we had orchestra leader and violinist Katie Jacoby to play the solo, jigging alongside Pete to create an extra stirring finale.
The Who’s third and last appearance at The Hollywood Bowl for their “Moving On!” Tour will take place Thursday, October 24, 2019 at 7:30 PM. Tickets start at $66. Buy Tickets HERE.