Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend just walked on stage all calm and cool and casual, no dramatic stage props or pyro, and there they were, right in front of us: The Who. Zero fuss, zero fanfare. Even though the orchestra at their backs, if asked, could have delivered a pretty good one.
“We tend to start softly,” Townshend told the crowd of more than 12,000 in Tampa Sunday night, “and get louder and louder and louder.”
They sure did, and it didn’t take long. Fifty years after Woodstock, the Who sounded utterly vital at Amalie Arena thanks to that symphony behind them, a collection of regional hires who rehearsed all day and bathed in standing ovations all night.
I’ve been to symphonic rock shows where the symphony felt superfluous, a pricey zircon bauble designed to class up an ensemble without regard to whether it fit. This was not that. The 48-piece orchestra backing the Who — led by onetime Boston Pops conductor Keith Levensen, working from ambitious arrangements by superstar composer David Campbell — blew the roof, doors and shutters off the arena, not only juicing up each collaborative song, but making the songs where they didn’t play feel almost small by comparison.
And remember: This is the Who we’re talking about, a band synonymous with power chords and smashed guitars and exploding drum kits. How is it possible to make songs like Substitute and I Can See For Miles and You Better You Bet feel anything remotely close to small? Turns out it’s easy — all you have to do is subtract the orchestra that made Eminence Front, Who Are You and Baba O’Riley sound colossal.
It’s hardly surprising this worked. Townshend, an architect among rock architects, seemed enlivened by the menagerie behind him, bringing his own rock symphonies to life. Tommy came first, a tsunami of swelling strings and James Bond horns overtaking the audience on selections like 1921, Amazing Journey and Sparks. Those horns punched like mighty pinball plungers on Pinball Wizard and exploded like electrified bumpers on We’re Not Gonna Take it, as Townshend windmilled to the thunder of his timpani.
Later in the night came a suite from Quadrophenia, with Townshend snarling out I’m One and squaring off with brother and guitarist Simon Townshend on a towering The Rock; and Daltrey whipping the cord of his mic like a Weed Eater, his clenched, froggy howl hitting its limits on 5:15 and Love, Reign O’er Me.
Amid a few hits that made dazzling use of the orchestra — the lovelorn Behind Blue Eyes, a jolting Who Are You, the sinful, penned-in-Florida Eminence Front — the Who worked in a couple of new ones from WHO, their first new album in 13 years, due in November. Hero Ground Zero and Ball and Chain didn’t move like the crowd like the others, but they also didn’t sound out of place with a super-sized symphony.
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The important thing, Townshend noted, is that the new stuff got him back on the road. He said he thought about ending the Who following a South American tour a couple of years ago, but writing new music brought him back.
Perhaps, despite his sharp-as-ever technical wizardry, Townshend and Daltrey still have a bit of retirement on the brain.
At one point, Townshend started to introduce Imagine a Man before realizing he was supposed to be play Eminence Front. Laughing in befuddlement, he called Daltrey over to check out his setlist to convince him he knew where they were.
“My moment!” he said, arms outstretched, basking in the laughter and cheers.
Then, a little later, a similar thing happened to Daltrey, as he turned to introduce a couple of soloists from the orchestra only to realize that they’d already left the stage. Daltrey, taking his own mickey, again consulted Townshend’s setlist to make sure he knew where he was.
“You’ve got the same f---ing problem I have,” Townshend said. “Your brain’s gone,”
“Oh, I don’t disagree with you there,” Daltrey replied.
The old-age jokes write themselves -- even if Daltrey, 75, and Townshend, 74, aren’t actually as ancient as some of their peers still out there hoofing it. They may have a few more farewell tours in them yet.
Besides, there’s something elemental between the two of them that still works. At one point in the middle of the set, the rest of the band and orchestra retreated to the shadows, leaving Daltrey and Townsend all alone on stage -- the actual Who, all that’s left of them, playing an acoustic rendition of Won’t Get Fooled Again.
There was Daltrey, stomping out a beat with hits boots, and there was Townsend, strumming a mad six-string. And yeah, the unplugged nature of the song deprived us all the chance to hear Daltrey’s final, feral, CSI: Miami scream one last time before they went. But it also proved they didn’t have to scale up with an orchestra to sound majestic. They picked up their guitar and played, just like yesterday, and the sound still filled the building.
“We may have lost our youth, we may have lost our glamour,” Daltrey said after the frenetic fiddle solo that closed out Baba O’Riley’s wild Balkan breakdown, “but the music is as good if not better than ever.”
The Who may not make much of an entrance these days. But that’s one hell of a way to make an exit.