Brian Kehew's Backstage Blog

Moving On! Tour: Grand Rapids, MI, May 7, 2019

Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids MI

This was the final reveal – the beginning of something new, and a bold step forward. Of course, “adding an orchestra” has been done before by rock bands, from Deep Purple in 1969 to Metallica etc. in recent years. In this very camp, Roger has just done his Tommy (and previous tours with orchestra) and Pete was out with Rachel’s Classic Quadrophenia. But that’s all safer – and with more easily predictable outcome – than our show tonight.

I could tell this audience was expectant – and maybe unclear – to see how this might all go. Will there be volume? Will there be guitars, or just a Who show with string parts on top? We’ve kept the setlist secret (not that it was completely clear until the day of the show.) And for good reason, some of the choices were sure to be a surprise – and we all know surprises can be fun and enjoyable, or a shock.

There was good planning done, but never enough time to be comfortable and coldly sure about it – and it’s not The Who way (I remember the rehearsals for the massive worldwide Live 8 concert; two songs to play with a new guest drummer and bassist – they never actually played either song all the way through – and called it “ready!” – sort of worrying for the new guys!) One of the reasons we love this band is the rough-and-ready side – too much polish and slickness would not be good.

The time came, seats were filled (both onstage and off) and The Who band came on to play. Roger and Pete sauntered-on casually, as they do. Roger looked casual and cool – dressed for stage as he does, and Pete leaned to the more elegant side, with a sartorially-splendid tailored suit with red silk scarf. A nice balance of visuals to match the yin/yang that RD and PT bring to their world anyway – both sides of the coin; and we’re all about to experience that musically, as well.

Opening with the ‘Overture’ to Tommy; a welcome gradual start to a very full evening. They have done Tommy in so many ways over the years, it’s become a shifting frame, tonight even more so. The key pieces were there: ‘1921’, ‘It’s A Boy’, ‘Amazing Journey’/’Sparks’, ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, ‘Acid Queen’, ‘See Me/Feel Me’, ‘Listening to You’ etc. – a nice sampling of the moments from that larger piece – even though it’s hard to say some of the others aren’t ‘greats’ too; it’s just tonight’s choice of pieces selected as best. The big ending of Tommy usually feels final, but then the band shifted gears into a harder mode, playing classic concert numbers.

‘Who Are You’ blasts as it should, with the quieter guitar solo section enhanced by some trippy string work.

The big moment, for many people, was the next surprise: ‘Imagine A Man’. I’ve been holding this news back, hoping it would happen. Pete’s beautiful song brings us back to The Who By Numbers era – a sadly-underrepresented LP for so many fans. This track has always been one of Roger’s favorites, and the lyrics are incredibly powerful. Tonight, the orchestra joined this debut, the first time The Who have ever played this live onstage. It seems to be a solid favorite for everyone now – and I expect we’ll get to hear it (and maybe some more The Who By Numbers music ?!) each night.

‘Eminence Front’ is actually one of the big surprises: this arrangement really does something unusual and unexpected, as it brings in dark jazzy elements and an almost sinister Mancini/Bill Conti swing. It’s already Pete’s framework for cutting loose, and the style works without losing an ounce of what was cool before. ‘Join Together’ worked a little less-well – and they mentioned it after, fair enough: Pete told a story about laying together all the original tracks he’d done, listing each instrument used – and how he felt that competes a bit with the orchestral parts tonight. (However, there was a disconnect – as some time was lost between the band and the orchestra, and it was saved from total disaster by conductor Keith Levenson, who called an audible direction and suddenly took the whole orchestra forward one measure suddenly to bring the parts back in-line.) Pete did mention there was a reason to his story – as he then sent the orchestra away! Which they did, marching out, but it was a planned break. Another surprise . . .

The band kicked off a new segment, sans orchestra, yet full of its own innovations. Some of the evening’s true highlights happened here: They have nothing to do with the orchestra concept; it is Pete and Roger’s plan to be creative with what they do, and how to keep things interesting.

An acoustic version of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ featured ferocious strumming/rhythm work from Pete; you’ve probably heard his various acoustic versions of Who songs before, it cuts down to the meat of the song, and how well they often work stripped to the core. Roger also loves to play with these versions – I swear they never rehearsed this once at all (to my knowledge) and just launched into it after having had the idea. Zak played a bit of hi-hat, and Simon T added his own acoustic, but Rog and Pete were the real show.

‘Behind Blue Eyes’ – the band was joined by touring musicians Katie Jacoby (violin) and Audrey Snyder (cello). The strings sat among the band members and played gorgeous lines among the usual band parts. It’s a great song, in any form, and another of tonight’s beautiful new moments.

‘Tea and Theatre’ – it’s been years since the quiet Endless Wire track was last heard. Virtually every show on the long 2006-7 tour closed with this duo piece. Before they began, Pete explained that as a composer and guitarist, one of the best things you can do is de-tune the guitar to a new set of notes. It inspires ideas and parts. He then demonstrated the highly-unusual choices he’d made by plucking each string individually, and then began to demonstrate how this worked for the song pattern. These quiet songs are small in scope, but seem to actually magnify the moment – the intimacy brings out their two personalities in such an unfiltered and pure way. I know it’s not the violent exploding Who of legendary appearances, but it is the emotional Who that the real fans came to love as much – or even more. (I would pay to sit even far in the back for an all-acoustic duo night of this stuff – it’s just amazing musically.)

Back into the orchestra – they’d earned a break – and into Quadrophenia! This music works well with orchestration, although it’s not likely Pete’s multilayered tracks of synthesizers and keyboards (plus John’s horns) were intended to simulate a symphonic sound, but the density and interplay of those original parts makes tonight’s version seem right at home. Some of the strongest pieces we’ll hear are in this set. After ‘I’m One’, ‘The Punk and the Godfather’ marries the power of rock band and orchestra. ‘5:15’, yes. ‘Drowned’, yes – not surprising choices at all, but fully satisfying. Then ‘The Rock’. For me, the moment that it all clicked and became the thing that was possible here. The song lends itself to these layers, with the full Who rock band version – done live just a few years back, plus a fully acoustic orchestrated version like Pete and Rachel’s tour – meeting on top of each other. These arrangements (mainly by David Campbell) are meant to be solid and rocking – but this one sounds literally martial, with Zak storming around his custom-all-gold kit, horns and strings layered seamlessly upon guitars; it was an orgasmic moment, and I got severe chills. Roger has always introduced this in our shows as virtually “a modern-classical piece,” and it becomes that tonight in full. I recommend you fill your head with it (if you don’t already know it could, you should) and come expecting to be blown away.

‘Love Reign O’re Me’ of course, follows this. Roger takes center (or centre; English!) stage for his showstopper. As usual, this one takes the house down, but even more so than usual, as the orchestral/rock version is undeniably powerful. This was the evening’s big success moment, perfect for its placement here toward the end. I doubt it’s one people imagined about before coming to the show, but it is where the new formula put us well over the top.

‘Baba O’Riley’ follows, with a complex score, layering the original Lowrey-organ tracks with intricate woodwinds, strings, brass – and band. The huge main power chords are doubled with heavy brass and low strings; a very basic idea, but one shouldn’t mess about with what works. Yeah, the song still rocks, and Pete windmills with as much attitude as ever – it’s not better than just a big guitar chord; it’s another great sound on a favorite song.

And so – there it is. The new Who tour begins. The setlist will change and evolve – I’m sure of it. There was room to grow tonight – I doubt anyone felt confident yet, but there were none of the feared crashes or blunders (we will someday though!) But this show has already delivered some stunning and spine-chilling moments right out of the box. Some funny moments, like when Roger said “Pete, I couldn’t hear you – for the first time in my life!!”

We’re SO grateful for the incredible playing of the Grand Rapids orchestral musicians, who played excellently – and really made it a lot easier than was expected. The crew pulled a rabbit out of a hat – setting up a rather complex show for the first night without any major hitches. ‘First nights’ have a sort of weird magic about them – like a first-date – no one really knows how it’s going to be received, with all the newness and awkwardness being charming – when allowed. The Nice said back in 1969, “pregnant with promises and anticipation” – we all felt that going in tonight, and it was wonderful to let the new show have life for the first time! Thanks, all . . .


Tonight’s Set List

With Orchestra
It’s a Boy
Amazing Journey
The Acid Queen
Pinball Wizard
We’re Not Gonna Take It
Who Are You
Imagine a Man
Eminence Front
Join Together

The Kids Are Alright
Won’t Get Fooled Again (Acoustic)
Behind Blue Eyes
Tea & Theatre (Roger and Pete)

With Orchestra
I’m One
The Punk and the Godfather
The Rock
Love, Reign O’er Me
Baba O’Riley