Brian Kehew's Backstage Blog

Classic Quadrophenia Rehearsal: Boston Symphony Hall, Boston, MA, September 1, 2017

This tour is the North American followup to a prior 2015 show in London. As you may know, the entire Quadrophenia opus LP has been arranged for orchestra. The enormous and fairly daunting task was undertaken by Rachel Fuller, Pete Townshend’s partner and a skilled writer, singer, arranger herself. You may have seen her on In The Attic during our Endless Wire tour of 2006-7, or her own album work. On this tour, her skills as a full orchestral arranger are being showcased; she is essentially the captain of this ship. Pete T is here – the author, composer, and pilot of the rig for so many years. Now he’s along to enjoy the ride; fronting, supporting and performing in front of Rachel’s stunning pieces.

It’s billed as Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadropheniamost likely so many will not assume it’s a Who concert. Pete is certainly a selling point, but it’s clearly Rachel Fuller’s accomplishment here. Of course, Pete will appear on acoustic guitar and vocals. Some songs he does both, but on several he won’t play guitar, and will join the other vocalists just singing. It’s highly unusual to see Pete sing without a guitar in hand, but his voice is full and has that complex character which has developed over the years. Alfie Boe is friendly and positive, with just stunning power and range, and he’s covering all of Roger’s parts. Alfie is charming and wonderfully friendly. He’s clearly excited to be doing this again, as anyone would be – what a great job he has! (My own job is not too difficult, tuning and handing Pete his guitar, filling in for the legendary Alan Rogan for just a couple of weeks. Oh… and writing this blog, right?!) Fascinating to see Alfie power through these lead vocals, and then remember Roger Daltrey doing these very songs himself just a couple of years ago. We may be used to Roger’s vocals by now, but it’s in this kind of world-class perspective that we really see how strong Rog’s voice remains after all these decades of hard work!

Tonight, our rehearsal space is really overqualified! Boston’s legendary Symphony Hall, built in 1900, is  just a gorgeous old room. The space Leonard Bernstein called “The Big Time.” It has ornate gold-painted balconies and rich woodwork everywhere. There is a lush and friendly sound in this space, and possibly the most beautiful natural reverb I’ve ever heard, almost unreal in character and texture. (Studio people will know of Lexicon reverbs, those electronic processors that are used to add reverb to recordings. Their original designs were modelled here, as close as they could to match the original space.) No wonder so many classic recordings have been done here over the years, as the room itself really enhances the sound. It’s a shame this is not being recorded, even though it’s just a working rehearsal session, but the real shows are to come, we’re just here for a night time rehearsal.

This will be a concert; pure musical and vocal performance, and not much theater – it’s not a Broadway version. Conceptually, it’s not far removed from the way ‘Young Man Blues’ started as a jangling Mose Allison piano composition, and The Who took it and made it their own. Still recognizable, but freshly-dressed and with added excitement. ‘Fortune Teller’, ‘Shakin’ All Over’ – pieces that were re-orchestrated with The Who’s band, giving them new life. Now, the simpler (though powerful) rock band style is becoming orchestral.

Such things have been done before, yes, as it’s rather easy for anyone to a simplistic arrangement, but it can be very difficult to do well. This Classic Quadrophenia version is more complex and adds depth to an already-layered musical work. For example, it’s tricky to make orchestral percussion work without just copying over the parts of a rock drumkit (which actually sounds kind of wrong anyway.) Without the drum set, you often lose the traditional backbeat of rock, so the emphasis changes and more textures and layers come into play. Sometimes part of the rhythm is carried by violas or horns, not just the expected percussion instruments – and the results are charming and intriguing. It’s a great game of complexity to make each piece very familiar in places, but expanded and broadened in other areas, too.

Those who join us for these concerts will have many surprises; not in the power chords being played by horns and cello sections as you’d expect, but in deeper layers of alternate chords and textures, those new parts added alongside the old ones to make the pieces feel fresh and wake you right up. It’s a familiar favorite in new clothes. For those of you who have not yet heard this version of the old Quad, just wait. Don’t watch poor-quality-audio clips online; hold back for the real 3-dimensional sound that only a live orchestra and choir could create.

A little while in, Pete and Alfie are joined by Billy Idol, who saunters in to applause from the orchestra! (I guess he’s just one of those characters in music that everyone knows.) He brings his usual style along and gets right into character, rocking out as he sings. He’s happy to be doing these songs as well, great writing suits a singer, and the material feels new again in their hands.

I always wonder how “serious” orchestras will treat rock-based music. Some have not always been kind to rockers entering their territory. But I think they know this music is well-written and arranged impeccably. I saw some of the woodwind section banging their heads to these new-to-them pieces. I see some cellists exchanging knowing glances as this music definitely rocks in ways they’re not used to… and they like it! Of course, the original recordings of Quadrophenia and ‘The Rock’ hinted at orchestral possibilities, but here it is – realized and fleshed-out beyond your imagination.

Oddly enough, it’s the changes making it great, not the bits you’ll recognize. I found the new chorale parts to be the most-moving; a huge choir is something not even suggested or attempted on the original. You’d never think you’d hear ‘Doctor Jimmy’ sung by a choir, but it happens and it gives chills for sure. The ending section of ‘5:15’ becomes truly gorgeous with massed voices supporting the last few lines. Throughout, Rachel sat just in front of the stage, enjoying the sound and allowing it all to unfold without too much critique; she has enlisted the right people to make it work well. Conductor Keith Lockhart was comfortable but serious; things got done on-time and sounded great. To everyone’s credit, this was a serious rehearsal – no one was nitpicking over small details, you have to work fast and get things done just to make it through all the music even once. This was a seriously professional atmosphere, but casual in a “we have this handled” sort of way…

Afterward, Peter and Billy Idol were friendly to those musicians who came up, chatting and taking a few photos with orchestral members who happen to be fans (It must be a pretty “good day at work” for these specific players!) It seemed everyone was in a fine mood, no one worrying much about perfection, but still there were highly skilled performances emerging for a rehearsal. I’m really looking forward to these coming shows. It will not be The Who, no, but it will be special.

PS – Last night I helped unload a set of bags for Billy Idol as we came into the hotel. Bellboy!! Hah! I nearly gestured and pointed, as the band did during his big moment on the 1996 Quad tour. (I do hope some of you get that reference!)