By Paul Robicheau
The Who – arguably the third cog in British rock royalty behind the Beatles and the Rolling Stones – delivered more than a nostalgic run through the hits at Fenway Park on Friday.
The Who have hinted at retirement much longer than most bands have careers, first staging a farewell tour in 1982. The current Moving On Tour leaves its own connotations, especially given the ages of the group’s remaining co-founders: singer Roger Daltrey, 75, and guitarist/singer/songwriter Pete Townshend, 74.
But the Who – arguably the third cog in British rock royalty behind the Beatles and the Rolling Stones – delivered more than a nostalgic run through the hits at Fenway Park on Friday. For starters, the band built most of its set around a 48-piece orchestra that tapped local musicians from the Boston Pops and elsewhere, many having supported solo outings by Townshend and Daltrey at Tanglewood.
Townshend told Friday’s packed crowd that Leonard Bernstein saw the Who play its rock opera Tommy in 1969 and told him backstage, “You gotta do more of this stuff!” Well, hearing the Who tackle a half hour of Tommy with an orchestra initially seemed a misstep – beyond that Fenway’s no Tanglewood for acoustics. Symphonic players went out of synch in both their timing and the sound mix on the opening “Overture” before Tommy surged to form, notably on the ominous “Sparks,” a spirited “Pinball Wizard” and the glorious finale “We’re Not Going to Take It.” Townshend unleashed his first windmills on guitar. And Daltrey’s voice was brassy yet vulnerable on the opera’s trademark refrain “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me” before a decisive transition into “Listening to you, I get the music, gazing at you, I get the heat” boomed like a message to the audience.
The orchestra, conducted by Keith Levenson, was employed to greater effect on five well-chosen songs from the Who’s other rock opera, 1973’s Quadrophenia, combined for another half hour near the end of the show. Bolstered by strings, kickoff “The Real Me” got a bit chaotic, though that fit the song’s combustive drive. Townshend dealt “I’m One” as a free-wheeling changeup on acoustic guitar, before he and Daltrey slashed through “5:15,” which benefited from horns as it does on record. The instrumental “The Rock” beautifully merged orchestration with the core band, Townshend blending dual guitar lines with his brother Simon, while standout drummer Zak Starkey (yes, Ringo Starr’s son) continued his worthy nod to the Who’s late co-founder Keith Moon with high-churning waves of drum fills and electronic cymbal crashes. Then a piano soliloquy by Loren Gold led into Daltrey’s crowning “Love, Reign O’er Me,” the singer digging into a sonorous cry.
At one point, Daltrey thanked Mass. General Hospital for voice surgery that saved his career a decade ago, giving a shout-out to Dr. Steven Zeitels in the crowd. To which the irascible Townshend quipped, “Steven, are you really sure you did the right thing?”
The Who drew from throughout its catalog for the show’s mid-section, taking a break from the orchestra to reach back to ’60s hits “Substitute” (which could have used more teeth) and more fully dimensional highlight “I Can See for Miles.” Lesser selections even shined. Townshend infused “Eminence Front” with gritty guitar chords and took liberties with a lead vocal of gruff, passionate phrasing, while Daltrey matched the tight, zesty bounce of “You Better You Bet” by wandering the stage to engage fans in call-and-response questions.
They also shared two new songs from Who, the group’s first album since 2006, due Nov. 22 and suggesting a political bent. “Down in Guantanamo, still waiting for the big cigars,” Daltrey sang in the brawny march “Ball and Chain,” but “Hero Ground Zero” left little impression for first-time listeners beyond its title refrain.
The Who also surprised with a sparse, cello-graced deep track in 1975’s “Imagine a Man,” and brought famed anthem “Won’t Get Fooled Again” inward as a deft duet, with Townshend on acoustic guitar and Daltrey smartly avoiding the song’s climactic scream in the process. In turn, “Behind Blue Eyes” offered a more textural — if dynamically flattened — turn that featured violin and cello accompaniment.
When a familiar synthesizer loop announced “Baba O’Riley” in an oscillating wash of lights, strings-boosted power chords and drums kicked in, and Daltrey belted “Out here in the fields, I fight for my meals,” the nostalgic energy in the park erupted. As touring violinist Katie Jacoby stepped out for a sexy, virtuosic solo, it both echoed the song’s recorded ending and delivered another makeover that transcended Daltrey’s usual live harmonica solo. It was an apt final stroke — if frustratingly with no encore to follow, though the Who had already recounted their amazing journey onstage for more than two hours.
If, as inevitable at some point, the Who never make it back to Boston, at least they were moving out with thoughtful alternatives to the same old thrills. When the thrills ain’t quite what they used to be, that kind of move lent its own majesty.
Paul Robicheau served as the contributing editor for music in The Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone and other publications.