The Who Rock Chicagoland in Orchestral Fashion!

A cold damp night in an outdoor pavilion in Chicagoland isn’t the most ideal setting for a rock band fronted by two septuagenarians and backed by a full symphony orchestra to perform.

But then The Who isn’t just any rock band.  

The Who’s Roger Daltrey (left) and Pete Townshend

With an epic two-hour-plus performance that defied the unusually-cold-for-late-May elements – even for Chicago – legendary vocalist Roger Daltrey and guitar god Pete Townshend reminded everyone at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater in Tinley, IL on May 21 why The Who is often in the conversation as one of the most influential rock bands of all time, and why, after all these decades, they can still rock with the best of ‘em – heck even better.

And if there was any question about a venerable rock band like The Who being backed by an orchestra of all things, it all made sense by the time this ensemble was three or four cuts deep into the set list. 

Beginning with a non-stop foray into the first several songs from their iconic, (just-turned) 50-year-old rock opera Tommy, the band’s two living legends Daltrey and Townshend – along with their newer bandmates and the large orchestra – solidly recreated the magic of that musical masterpiece onstage.  

While their mini-Tommy set clearly was not intended to be a total re-enactment of their 1969 opus, the seven songs chosen from the rock opera, which included the album’s first five tracks, plus “Pinball Wizard” and the epic closer “We’re Not Gonna Take It”/“See Me, Feel Me,” gave fans like me just enough of a taste of the album to want to go back and relive the full listening experience when they got home.

The Who perform “We’re Not Gonna Take It”/“See Me, Feel Me” with full orchestra on May 21, 2019, at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater in Chicagoland suburb.

As was done on the album itself, The Who played the tracks from Tommy back-to-back without interruption.  It wasn’t until after those songs that we got to hear Daltrey and later Townshend talk for the first time, showing off their MC skills either as narrators explaining the significance of the songs we were about to hear, or as promoters announcing an upcoming new Who album (by the end of this year), featuring songs written by Townshend, the band’s longtime principle songwriter.

Occasionally the two surviving original members even got in a joke or two, and they often played off one another. 

For instance, after playing their crowd-pleasing anthem “Join Together,” which began with the famous jaw harp intro (played by keyboardist Loren Gold), Daltrey lamented the cold, windy Chicago night air, remarking incredulously to the crowd that “it’s fucking damn-near June, didn’t anyone tell you?”  To that lighthearted complaint, Townshend retorted, “Roger somehow made (the weather) your fault,” drawing instant laughter from the fans.

Townshend didn’t stop there. 

During one monologue while the orchestra was taking a break, he complimented their talents but noted their very strong labor union and how it had affected their practice and onstage times, adding that unions were something Chicagoans knew a bit about, clearly playing to the hometown crowd, which rewarded him with laughter and applause. 

Townshend, whose onstage antics of a half-century ago famously came at the expense of many smashed guitars, wears the role of rock-and-roll elder statesman pretty well in 2019.  Now, just after celebrating his 74th birthday on May 19, he lets his guitar – and the hand that strums it – do most of the talking (and yes, the famous windmill move is still there).  

Never were his legendary skills more evident on this night than on the track “Drowned” from The Who’s second rock opera, Quadrophenia – an album that, like Tommy, also accounted for seven songs on the band’s set list.  Townsend played “Drowned” solo, with only his guitar and his vocals powering the tune – ironically, a song in which Daltrey originally sang lead.  

Townsend’s vocals on that song and others had a heavier, more gruff sound – even bluesy at times.  He brought to mind the late fellow British singer Joe Cocker, except with better tonality. 

Daltrey, on the other hand, carried his tunes without any discernible loss in his earlier vocal abilities.  Most of the songs on which he sang lead were done in their original keys and, as the group’s main lead singer, he sounded great!  

The best examples of this were “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “Love, Reign O’er Me.”

And, of course, the show’s closer “Baba O’Riley” (a/k/a “Teenage Wasteland”), perhaps The Who’s most acclaimed song according to rock critics.  “Baba,” named for a spiritual mentor of Townshend’s from nearly 50 years ago, began with the famous marimba-like, reverbed organ intro – clearly the result of a backing track given its dead-on resemblance to the hard-to-duplicate original.

That part alone may have been the only obvious pre-recorded contribution to what was an otherwise all-live, all-authentic musical production by Townshend, Daltrey and company.  The music was indeed the real star of this show.  

The Who’s touring band member Loren Gold plucks the jaw harp during “Join Together” at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater on May 21, 2019.

Other notable moments included a fab violin and cello intro on the Daltrey-led “Imagine a Man,” and the acoustic rendering of the iconic “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which came at the expense of the song’s famous organ-synthesizer intro that fans have come to know and love since 1971.

The band also left out a few other gems, including pre-Tommy ‘60s classics like “My Generation,” “I Can See For Miles” and “Substitute,” and later hits like “You Better, You Bet” and their last top-40 single, “Athena.”

The omissions didn’t matter much, though.  The band still drew a wild applause from the audience, who appreciated the fact that this legendary act was still able to give peak performances – and even add newer elements to their classic rock staples.  

The show was over by 10:45, more than two hours after it had started.  But not before fans of The Who were treated to a musical extravaganza that, in hindsight, could have only been done justice by the full, more than 30-piece orchestra the band had in tow.

It was a truly unforgettable experience – one I recommend you catch if they’re coming to a town near you.

DJRob 

The classic Who lineup: Daltrey and Townshend in front; Keith Moon and John Entwistle in back (R.I.P. Moon and Entwistle).

The Who’s Set List for the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater on May 21, 2019:

  1. Overture
  2. It’s a Boy
  3. 1921
  4. Amazing Journey
  5. Sparks
  6. Pinball Wizard 
  7. We’re Not Gonna Take It/See Me, Feel Me
  8. Who Are You
  9. Eminence Front
  10. Imagine a Man
  11. Join Together
  12. The Kids Are Alright
  13. The Seeker
  14. Won’t Get Fooled Again (acoustic)
  15. Behind Blue Eyes
  16. Tea & Theatre
  17. The Real Me
  18. I’m One
  19. The Punk and The Godfather 
  20. 5:15
  21. Drowned
  22. The Rock
  23. Love, Reign O’er Me
  24. Baba O’Riley
The Who’s recent Chicagoland set list is on this Spotify playlist, along with a few extras.

DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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