The Who’s “Moving On!” At Madison Square Garden, Sunday, September 1st, 2019, Review
In an interview on August 17th, when asked what keeps him and Roger Daltrey coming back together, Pete Townshend told Michael Lello of the New York Post: “In my case, often it is the desire to make money so I can pursue ambitious solo projects, or musical or theatrical experiments, or just so I can go sailing. Roger needs to sing to keep his voice alive, but unlike me he is also a much more normal performing artist in that he enjoys being on stage.” So much for love and friendship over, if you include the Detours (later The High Numbers), 60 years.
It is a career that has taken the Who from a tight, little, speed fueled, Northern soul influenced, Mod avatar to a hard rock duet fronting a 48 piece orchestra, which is where we found them Sunday evening. Opening was Leslie Mendelsohn, the mid-00s singer songwriter who just recorded a new song “Human Touch” with Jackson Browne, she performed gorgeous soft rock dwarfed in the surroundings but still very good.
The Who’s “Moving On!” tour was first at MSG in May and I missed it. I have seen the Who many, many times, in 1996 I saw the first “Quadrophenia” tour on four separate occasions ALONE, but I hadn’t been crazy about the 50th reunion tour, and decided to sit it out. Two reasons not to:
1 – Tomas Doncker had never seen the Who, and really, for the CEO of New York’s best indie label not to see the Who is unacceptable.
2 – rock nyc scribe Ken Davis (who I became friends with at a Marshall Crenshaw concert -so it’s like that), reviewed the May show (here). “The orchestral accompaniment greatly enhanced the performance of the material”. I immediately regretted my decision and I should have gone, last night was their best performance since John Entwistle was still alive.
Pete and Roger rehearsed for a week in Florida (“longer than we would usually”), the band were as tight as humanly possible given, well, how tight can you be with bassoon and timpani blowing what’s left of your eardrums out on stage? What tightness there was can be thanked Zak Starkey on drums, who kept a keen eye on Pete all night long (sarcy Tomas: “where do you think he’s going to look?”).
The Who reached their zenith in 1967 with The Who Sells Out, the place where Pete’s rock symphonics nailed his pop sensibilities, captured forever on the 1970 Live At Leeds. When I first heard Tommy I was twelve years old and it blew me away. At 62? Not so much. Quadrophenia took hard rock and added a storyline, the movie was released in 1979 and saved the Who from the drubbing punk brought right down on the head of classic rockers everywhere. So, this wasn’t going to be the setlist of our dreams, that would be every single and most B Sides from “I Can’t Explain” to “Magic Bus”. The Who, the classic rock, arena filling, anthem guys were never, ever my first choice. But goddamn it, they killed me last night.
A three movement set, it opens with Tommy highlights with the orchestra, moves on to some odds and sods, the third movement was Quadrophenia, and the end was “Baba O’Reilly”. I always assumed Pete was behind the concept of touring with an orchestra, an expensive habit (and, astonishingly, they choose different orchestras in every town -who are they? Who who? Chuck Berry?), but it was Roger’s idea. More like Paul and the Stones, as opposed to Dylan or Robert Plant, they don’t fuck around too much with their recorded sound, so arranging for an orchestra must have sparked their interest. Opening with the first five songs off Tommy performed with a stunning vibrancy and vocal charge by Roger, soon they are bringing out “Who Are You?”, drunken Pete meets punk rock, with terrific backing harmonies. During the band only set, we get a vibrant “You Better You Bet” (Roger stayed away from the high notes) and an acoustic duet on “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Back came the orchestra for standout “5:15,” and the solid build to a teenage wasteland to cap two, excellent, hours.
Tomas, who is not a Daltrey fan, was impressed by Roger’s vocals, if not his mic twirling, and more impressed with Pete’s windmill (he broke his fingernail off). Tomas: “It isn’t easy to do that, it hurts your entire arm and bruises your fingers”. Which explains why Pete was grimacing everytime he did the power chord strum.
The Who are finding more ways to make money, somebody once took umbrage when, after asking me why the Stones and U2 were still after money when they were so rich, I replied because it is money. But that’s the truth, whatever Pete might say, they want money because they want money. Last night they deserved to be paid.