Concert Review: The Who Wrap Up Tour at Hollywood Bowl, With Strings Attached

Fifty-five years into a career, who cares? Three Bowl-fuls of fans, who didn't have to sacrifice rock 'n' roll heat to get the benefit of David Campbell's dramatic string arrangements.

The Who at the Hollywood Bowl
Randall Michelson

The Who’s three-night stand at the Hollywood Bowl was marked by a nearly two-week spread between the band’s first show there Oct. 11 and their final Bowl gig Thursday night. For whatever reasons things might have been scheduled that way, it did ensure that there was plenty of time for anyone who thought they could take a pass this time around to hear word of mouth from the first two nights and rethink that potentially tragic judgment call.

Roger Daltrey is in as strong and even downright belty voice as you ever remember hearing him, at 75, you say? Some of us might’ve required a second opinion on that — and the third and fourth corroborating takes just kept on coming, from nights one and two. Pete Townshend has put away the acoustic you remember him favoring a few tours back and returned to skin-peeling solos, between turns of the windmills? The full orchestra that’s been advertised as a vital component this go-round actually feels like a complement to the rock ‘n’ roll and doesn’t completely turn the feel from “Live at Leeds” to “A Night at the Pops”? You don’t say. And you do, belatedly, do whatever it takes to attend the final night of the 2019 tour, on a weirdly toasty night where at least some attendees were driving past raging fires to get there.

For some of us, the biggest barrier to believing this tour would be a great one wasn’t the limits we expect of advancing age; being able to deliver like they did in their 20s and 30s is against all odds, but Mick Jagger’s recent appearances have pretty well reset the bar for what we expect out of exceptions. Much more than that, it might have been the non-Who “Classic Quadrophenia” album and tour of a couple years back, which had Townshend playing that entire album with a symphony and a classical tenor singing lead in place of Daltrey. I didn’t catch the tour, but speaking as someone who considers “Quadrophenia” pretty near the apex of pop art and who has a soft spot for symphonic rock, I can only vouch for that album’s well-intentioned dreadfulness.

This was not that. Obviously there’s the fact that we have Daltrey back singing “Quadrophenia” again, or a healthy chunk of it, as the show’s climax, along with the even healthier chunk of “Tommy” that begins in, and many one-offs in-between. (Replacing him on “Classic Quadrophenia” with an operatic musical theater tenor was like replacing a blunt instrument with a Stradivarius: inadvisable.) Just as importantly, maybe, the arrangements for the tour were done by a name you can trust, David Campbell (aka Beck’s dad, by any other name), who has not been known to fail when it comes to the sensitive task of writing orchestration that makes its presence known in exciting ways but never suffocates a rock spirit. There was never any doubt Thursday that this was a Who show first and a Who + Symphony concert secondarily, with deeper layers your ear could focus on or probably just as easily tune out, if you find flutes offensive. And when you’ve got a seven-piece rock ensemble competing with a 42-piece orchestra, sometimes, everybody wins.

After a too-short opening set by Liam Gallagher (too short for everyone to make it in on a fire-affected traffic nightmare night, anyway), the Who began with exactly a half-hour of “Tommy.” It was a sharp condensation minus the bullying bits and Ann-Margret moments that don’t lend themselves to tense, almost psychedelic jamming quite as well as “Sparks” and “Amazing Journey.” Townshend seemed right on the border of consciously paying homage to “Purple Haze,” accompany orchestra notwithstanding, in a “got a feeling ’68 is gonna be a good one” kind of way. The famous rapid-fire 360-degree arm movements started early, and made you think about how that kind of physical flamboyance spoke to the last rows in amphitheaters like this one in the late ‘60s, before the dawn of video screens. (Given the pinball theme, you could say that, rather than tilting at windmills, Townshend uses the opportunity to windmill at “tilt.”)

Following “Who Are You,” Townshend addressed the topic surely on every fan’s mind: the band’s status as licensing and synch kings. “When people first started to use the Who’s music in TV and advertising and movies, there was a sense that in some way the context would get f—ed up, he said. “These days, if the context has been f—ed up, we’ve had to kind of correct it and get it back on track. And this next song (“Eminence Front”) was one of the first that was ever used for a TV show: It was used in ‘Miami Vice.’ … And it’s all about how you feel, you f—ers, you f—wits, you s—heads, when you take too much cocaine. So it’s sort of the Elton John story, really.” The audience tittered, as if he’d just said something naughty, apparently not having read John’s new memoir. “You may like to know that Taron Egerton, who played Elton in ‘Rocketman,’ is here tonight,” he added, digressing. “You can grab him and kiss him and feel his bum if you want.” Later, Townshend announced that their longtime drummer Zak Starkey’s dad Ringo Starr was also in attendance, and it was okay to feel his bum, too. (This is the reason why the Who’s YouTube channel programs supercuts just of Townshend talking between songs, kind of like the old spoken-word live album “Having Fun with Elvis on Stage.”)

The tour has included exactly one deep cut, but it’s a welcome one — “Imagine a Man,” from 1975’s underrated “Who by Numbers,” a song that had apparently never been performed live by the Who before this year, which Townshend credited as one that Daltrey “discovered.” “When you look back at the albums we’ve done there’s a wide variety of stuff. We had a reputation of being a heavy band, and a lot of our stuff is just not like that, so it doesn’t get played in the context of that kind of music. But if you’re Who fans, you know what those songs are.” The inclusion was an act of fan servicing, as if to say to the small part of the audience that was grateful: You know Who.

Following the first third, the orchestra was sent packing for what Townshend described as the middle “set,” “because they have a very long day… and we can go back to being the little, tiny band that we really are: just me and him. Him and me,” he corrected himself, as if it were proper to give Daltrey’s pronoun top billing. Daltrey did not get a lot of words in edgewise during the between-songs commentary, but he did add here, “And what better song to carry on with than (the one containing) the best line in rock: ‘I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth!’” Whatever his other qualities, Daltrey is an astute judge of Townshend lyrics.

Two songs from their coming December album (their first in 13 years) were performed — the already released “Ball and Chain” and not-yet-streamable “Hero Ground Zero,” with the former having a bit more live vigor than the latter. Not everything in the section sans orchestra was played completely straight: “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which would intuitively seem destined for a climactic slot, benefitted from getting a mid-set acoustic treatment with only Daltrey and his violently strumming partner on stage. “Behind Blue Eyes” was enriched with the addition of a cellist and violinist, before the entire 42-piece crew returned for a final round mainly focused on five songs from “Quadrophenia” (down from seven earlier in the tour).

“Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” are pretty much tied for rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest achievement on a storytelling level (admittedly, the field of competitors is a thin one, but even so). Given the masterpiece status of both, it’s churlish to complain about the Who having done tour focusing on one or the other played in its entirety, but there’s also something a bit fancy about thinking that musical theater-type asides like “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” or “Bell Boy” must be included in a live show, as if inseparable movements in a classical repertoire. Getting the Reader’s Digest version of both makes this a Who setlist to die for. And although it might have seemed as if the show was peaking when the company got to “Listening to You” just 30 minutes into a 135-minute show, Townshend was right to push the “Quad” songs to the end and save the lesser celebrated “Love Reign O’er Me” for the real climax. As good as, say, a Stones show is these days, its pure swagger doesn’t have anything to rival the life-and-death bipolarity built into a showstopper like “Reign.” Even if you doget slightly distracted from the emotional content of the Sturm und Drang in that number just wondering if Daltrey is going to be able to hit those notes, with power, at the end of a long night. (He does.)

It would take a “Love Reign O’er Me” to make “Baba O’Reilly,” the actual final song of the set, into an anticlimax. But that “Who’s Next” classic was finally able to serve as an end number in a way that it never could before, without an orchestra on hand to borrow from. A song that ends with a vintage recording of a violin solo is not going to make a very good rock ‘n’ roll show capper; having lead violinist and orchestra leader Katie Jacoby on hand to step into that role in the flesh made that a perfectly fun finale to go out on.

“So we are coming back next year,” Townshend said, quickly adding, “We probably won’t get back to L.A. I think we’ve taken as much money out of you as we can possibly get,” he quipped. So maybe ’21 is going to be a good year for returning to the Bowl, then. Speaking from one group to another, the Who to Southern California, he said, “We f—ing love you guys and we want to get back here as soon as possible. So — who knows?”

“Who Knows” may be the one “who” album or tour title Townshend and Daltrey haven’t used up yet; may they always be saving it for the next one.