The 17,000-plus-capacity Climate Pledge Arena almost seemed too small to properly handle the sonic bombast that the Who and the 48-piece orchestra generated Saturday night. If this was going to be the last time these British Invasion legends hit Seattle, they could take pride in the extra effort and logistical machinations needed to pull off this monumental collaboration that inflated many of their most beloved songs into dirigibles of rock in excelsis.
With the incomparable rhythm section of bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon long gone (they passed in 2002 and 1978, respectively), the Who—despite the fine musicians in the current lineup—can't help sounding like a slightly diminished entity at this late date. It's the fate of all rock bands who carry on long past their prime. But if there's anyone who can steward an important musical warhorse into its dotage with dignity, it is Peter Townshend.
This concert was a testament to the towering ambition of Townshend, who's spry and witty at 77. Longstanding mate since the band's earliest days as the High Numbers, 78-year-old Roger Daltrey miraculously has retained nearly all of his majestic vocal power. And although he flubbed a couple of his trademark mic swings and couldn't really nail the “high” part of “The Seeker,” Rog proved that he can still play a mean tambourine.
The 21-song set encompassed large chunks of the Who's imperial stadium-rock phase (Tommy, Who's Next, Quadrophenia, Who Are You), a couple of '80s hits, and a token tune from 2019's little-heard LP, Who. However, folks who came hoping for those adrenalized classics from the mid-'60s run—the Who's zenith—got zilch. A bummer for my generation, but the show was an extravagant blast nonetheless.
Speaking of extravagance, "Overture" served as an opulent, momentous kick-off—the platonic ideal of a fanfare for Hall of Fame rock bands. The instrumental began a nine-song run with Keith Levenson conducting the orchestra, featuring soloists Katie Jacoby on violin, Audrey Snyder on cello, and former psych-pop phenom Billy Nicholls on backing vocals. Guitarist/backup singer Simon Townshend (Pete's bro), keyboardists Loren Gold and Emily Marshall, bassist Jon Button, and drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr's son) completed the Who lineup.
They did the Tommy portion of the night justice, though Townshend's power chords often got lost in the orchestral sumptuousness. But it was cool to see Pete rub his guitar against the mic stand for some strange sounds during "Sparks," and "Pinball Wizard" zinged with panache. When the ultimate sky-punching anthem "We're Not Gonna Take It" swelled and Townshend began those patented windmill strokes, I thought, "Holy shit, they're pulling it off! Against the odds and my ingrained skepticism!"
With Daltrey on electric guitar, "Who Are You"—whose bravura charms radio has bludgeoned to death—stood out for the brilliant embellishments wrought by the orchestra. With its synths sparkling like state-of-the-art 1982 technology, "Eminence Front" once more made middle-aged machismo feel cool. Pete's voice, though, was gruff and devoid of nuance; it's not weathered the years as well as Roger's. The 2019 song "Ball and Chain" should've been excised from the setlist; you could sense audience deflation instantly.
The six-track band-only set began with annoying Face Dances single "You Better You Bet"; it sounded corny in 1981 and comes off even cornier now. The broad-shouldered swagger of "The Seeker" almost made up for the absence of pre-Tommy material, thanks to Townshend's spring-loaded riffing.
"Won't Get Fooled Again" still has a potent kick in its hoary legs and it may have drawn the night's biggest applause; I hope it's because all the Trump voters in the crowd realized their heinous mistakes. When Gold's burbling, mesmerizing keyboard solo segued into Daltrey's scream, it made you marvel all over again at the old geezer's pliable pipes. The ever-tender "Behind Blue Eyes" received an elegant chamber-orchestra treatment with contrabass, cello, and violin.
The concert closed strongly with six Quadrophenia chestnuts, all of them copacetic with orchestral reinforcements. "The Rock" went for baroque and took on elements of a climactic Hollywood movie scene score, as footage of historic events and politicians flashed on the big screens flanking the stage. The penultimate song, "Love Reign o'er Me," started with a gorgeous electric piano solo and Daltrey rose to the challenge of the set's most vocally strenuous tune—even very late in the night.
You couldn't have asked for a more fitting finale than the Terry Riley homage, "Baba O'Riley"—which was elevated by Jacoby's whirling-dervish violin solo. I hope every mofo at Climate Pledge went home and downshifted from this triumphant performance to listen to A Rainbow in Curved Air.
A special shout out to the 50something woman behind me who danced and jumped for nearly the entire show. You were the "Instant Party" that the Who neglected to play.
The Who setlist
ORCHESTRA SET 1
03 Amazing Journey
05 Pinball Wizard
06 We're Not Gonna Take It
07 Who Are You
08 Eminence Front
09 Ball and Chain
10 You Better You Bet
11 The Seeker
12 Naked Eye
13 Another Tricky Day
14 Won't Get Fooled Again
15 Behind Blue Eyes
ORCHESTRA SET 2
16 The Real Me
17 I'm One
19 The Rock
20 Love Reign O'er Me
21 Baba O'Riley