When you’ve been around as long as The Who has—and had as much success as Pete Townsend, Roger Daltrey, and company have enjoyed—just about anything in the music business could become old hat. That includes playing at Los Angeles’ iconic Hollywood Bowl, where the London-based legends have often performed over the course of their 55-year career, and where they returned for three shows in October at the tail end of their Moving On! tour.
If the second of those shows was any indication, though, The Who is as resilient and resistant as ever to growing stale, if not to growing old.
For 140 minutes, the group delighted a packed house at the Bowl with just about every essential piece of their expansive catalogue—save for the seminal “My Generation”—on a nippy Sunday night. They opened the proceedings with a sizeable swath of 1969’s Tommy and rounded out the show with a selection of songs from 1973’s Quadrophenia before bursting into the anthemic “Baba O’Riley” at the very end. In between, The Who rolled out a collection of tracks that Pete reluctantly referred to as “hits”, from “Who Are You” and “Eminence Front” to “You Better You Bet” and “Behind Blue Eyes”.
As familiar as all this may seem at first glance, what made this show—and what’s made this whole tour—spectacularly distinct was the full orchestra The Who had on stage around them. With Zak Starkey still on drums, Pete’s brother Simon Townsend on guitar, Jon Button on bass, and Billy Nicholls on backing vocals and tambourine, the band welcomed Katie Jacoby on violin and Audrey Snyder on cello to lead an expanded lineup that created a rich soundscape behind its tried-and-true core. Where previously The Who leaned on animations and visual montages to provide an added engrossing element to their shows, they now have an awe-inspiring array of expert instrumentalists to captivate the crowd and keep the focus squarely on the music.
That depth served The Who well while recapping their most famous rock operas, and lent some truly transcendent layers to “Baba O’Riley.” The famous fluttering throughout the cut from 1971’s Who’s Next took on new life coming from flutes and other wind instruments. As for that unforgettable solo to close out the night? Instead of Roger wailing away on his harmonica to replicate it, Katie put her violin to work in recreating it in a way as true to the original recording as has ever been done on stage.
Beyond those moments of symphonic gravitas, the orchestra provided the perfect medium for some deep cuts and new tunes from The Who. They dug into 1975’s The Who by Numbers for “Imagine a Man” and put the orchestra to tremendous use on “Hero Ground Zero” and “Ball and Chain”, both off the upcoming album WHO.
The fact that The Who is putting out new music after more than a half century is remarkable in and of itself. That they’re doing so years after Roger’s troubles with his vocal cords is practically miraculous. In the bigger picture, it’s all of a piece with what The Who has been throughout their collective career—that is, a vehicle for reinvention, sonically and otherwise.
After Keith Moon passed away in 1978, the band cycled through several drummers, including Kenney Jones of Small Faces/Face, before settling on Zak Starkey, the son of one Richard Starkey (better known as Ringo Starr). When John Entwistle died in 2002, Pete not only brought on Pino Palladino to play bass—which he proceeded to do with The Who for 15 years—but also expanded the lineup to include his brother Simon.
Thankfully, the group didn’t lose Roger or his voice when pre-cancerous growths appeared on his vocal cords the better part of a decade ago. But The Who has tweaked their sound and style to suit the 75-year-old’s capabilities on the mic—which, it must be said, are still formidable.
Such adaptability has long been part-and-parcel with The Who’s identity. Much of what set aside the band from its contemporaries, and has allowed it to thrive through changing tides over decades, is Pete’s experimentations with technology, from using computers to generate sound in the 1960s and ‘70s, to making The Who among the first bands to ever live stream full concerts in the late 2000s.
It’s no wonder, then, that The Who continues to express such gratitude to the youth, even as they slip into the surliness of old age. During the band’s second show at the Bowl, Pete, and to a lesser extent, Roger, took seemingly every opportunity to laud millennials for supporting their music and, more broadly, shouldering the lode left by previous generations, including the one from which Pete—a self-described “74-years-old f—ed-up stoner”—hails.
(And that was just one of the many F-bombs and C-words that Pete unleashed that night.)
Granted, packing a stage with woodwinds, strings, and the like is anything but modern, much less futuristic. But for The Who, it was a refreshing twist on their usual repertoire.
Given the sheer span of the set, which left more than enough room for The Who to reconnect with their roots—or, as Pete put it, to “try to play the way we used to play, when we were younger.” For that, they gave the orchestra a break while keeping the core around to rock through “Substitute”, “I Can See For Miles”, and “You Better You Bet”.
The highlight of the night, though, came with just Roger and Pete on stage. Before everyone returned for the third part of the set, the two surviving original members of The Who combined for a powerful, stripped-down rendition of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” with Roger belting and Pete strumming away on his acoustic guitar.
For all the accoutrements the group has added to reinvigorate its act, The Who remains, at heart, Pete and Roger’s ongoing pet project. So long as those two are still kicking, they figure to do their part to keep the music alive—and, whenever and however possible, give it a different spin to keep it as fresh for themselves and their multigenerational audience.
Check out a gallery of photos from Sunday night’s show below courtesy of photographer Randall Michelson.
The Who continues their Moving On! tour on Wednesday, October 16th with a performance at San Diego, CA’s Viejas Arena at Aztec Bowl San Diego State University. For a full list of the band’s upcoming tour dates, ticketing, and more information, head to The Who’s website.