As a greeting to the crowd for The Who’s first Atlanta appearance since 2015, Pete Townshend strolled onstage with the rest of the band and a full symphony.
“Hey!” he said. “It’s so great to be back in Elton John’s hometown. He was just telling me how much he loves it here, still.”
With that, the mercurial guitar genius signalled that he was in fine spirits on Wednesday night, as The Who teamed with the orchestra for two-thirds of its two-hour performance, imbuing classics with a palpable sweep and offering a few new songs from the band’s upcoming November album, “Who,” its first in 13 years.
Townshend’s right-hand man, Roger Daltrey, still looked fabulous and fit at 75 in a black T-shirt and jeans and his trademark tinted glasses. Though he sounded painfully hoarse during the first segment of the show – and not for a lack of effort as he strained mightily to hit the right notes during “1921” and “Amazing Journey” (his mic spinning served as an able distraction) – Daltrey found his vocal groove midway through the night.
Townshend, 74, seemed invigorated by the challenge of playing with the orchestra – conducted by Keith Levenson – as he charged toward Daltrey with his guitar pointed for a riff assault on “Sparks.”
The inclusion of the orchestra allowed The Who to wade into lengthy interludes spiked with brass and strings and augment the already ample sonic blitzkrieg that coats these “Tommy” classics. Horn fanfare joined Townshend’s opening guitar strikes for “Pinball Wizard” – Townshend offered a small hop at its finale – and the addition of a symphony was especially notable on “We’re Not Gonna Take It”/”See Me, Feel Me.”
A few pockets of empty seats were noticeable in a crowd otherwise packed with longtime fans, most of whom stood throughout – especially on the floor – the presence of a symphony not deterring their rock concert fervor.
Indeed, this WAS still a very Who show, as the legendary frontmen were joined by keyboardist Loren Gold, guitarist/backup singer Simon Townshend, bassist Jon Button and the ever-captivating drummer Zak Starkey, a Who-man since the mid-‘90s.
From the squishy keyboards of “Who Are You” to the vigorous vocals of Townshend during “Eminence Front,” many of these performances were comfortably familiar to those who have witnessed the band live before.
But, as Townshend bluntly noted, he didn’t want to tour without new music, so the band presented a sampling of fresh material, including the layered rocker “Hero Ground Zero” and new single, “Ball and Chain.”
The orchestra exited for several songs as the Who crew bustled through “The Kids Are Alright” and their first U.S. hit from 1967, “I Can See For Miles.” That was the moment Daltrey found his voice, comfortably belting its catchy chorus before dovetailing into a spirited run through “You Better You Bet.”
But the highlight of the show spotlighted Daltrey and Townshend alone, knocking out an acoustic read of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Townshend wrestled the strings of his guitar with finger-bleeding speed, while Daltrey extracted the undiminished defiance of the song’s lyrics - two old pros breaking down a classic to its bones.
The return of the orchestra produced, among other songs, the poignant “Behind Blue Eyes,” “The Real Me” from “Quadrophenia” and the set-closer “Baba O’Riley,” fulfilling inclusions that fans expect.
Watching The Who with a full orchestra is like upgrading on a plane – you get what you expected, with the addition of a few (musical) perks.
Even though they’ve christened this tour with the cryptic title, “Moving On!,” the band doesn’t seem intent on ending anything – only continuing to surge forward with renewed strength.
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