The Who in Pittsburgh

John Patrick Gatta on June 14, 2019
The Who in Pittsburgh

The Who’s current Moving On! tour offers a double meaning ala The Who By Numbers and Who Are You. But, after witnessing a sold-out concert with a devoted PPG Paints Arena crowd in Pittsburgh, one hopes that remaining members Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend view this tour as the next step moving forward rather than a sign that they are calling it a day.

Getting to this point relied on a reimagining of the band’s material. With a full symphony from each city’s tourdate,  Townshend and Daltrey plus longtime touring members Simon Townsend (guitar), Zak Starkey (drums) and Billy Nicolls (backing vocals) along with new additions Loren Gold (keys) and Jon Button (bass) blended Daltrey’s orchestral excursion last year with a regular band performance. It still took some convincing to get Townshend on board. He told the audience, “It was uphill to begin with for me, to tell you the truth.” Referring to conductor Keith Levenson he said, “I’m not used to having people tell me what to do.” In true thumbing his nose at the establishment approach, numbers with the symphony may have garnered greater musical discipline but it was the conductor feeding off the cues of the evening’s main attraction. 

The 140-minute concert started with a selection from Tommy, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The orchestra unsurprisingly aligned well with the instrumentals “Overture” and “Sparks” but also enhanced “Amazing Journey,” “Pinball Wizard” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” The union of electric rock and mic’d up classical followed that up with a rendition of “Who Are You” that blasted loud and triumphant.
The first section with the orchestra ended with a beautifully-performed “Imagine a Man.” The graceful search for enlightenment while fatalistically realizing mortality is ahead comes from the underrated “The Who By Numbers” album.

With the stage to themselves, the band played what may be the best version — studio or live — of “You Better You Bet.” Pushed along by Starkey’s propulsive drum rhythm the song finally got some teeth to it. After “Substitute” ended, Daltrey commented that it has “one of the best lines in rock. ‘I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth.'” And he’s not wrong.
The band also delved deep into its catalog with “I Can See For Miles.” After Moving On! touring members Katie Jacoby (violin) and Audrey Snyder (cello) joined on “Behind Blue Eyes,”  Townshend and Daltrey did two numbers as a duo. An acoustic guitar version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” did not sound too odd for many longtime fans who heard such a arrangement over the years by a solo Townshend. “Tea & Theatre” ended this portion with their look back at those who didn’t make it this far and gently celebrating the bond that brought them here. 

The mood didn’t remain somber for long as Townshend good-naturedly heckled a group of fans who have made it to every 2019 show. Then Daltrey piped in with, “They’re waiting for us to die … so they can say they were there!””

The orchestra returned for seven tracks from Quadrophenia. “The Real Me” and “5:15” made their regular appearance during a Who concert while “The Punk and the Godfather” and “The Rock” were unexpectedly nice additions. “I’m One” delivered while Townshend did a magnificent solo acoustic “Drowned.” The section concluded with emotional payoff of “Love Reign O’er Me.”

Rather than Daltrey playing it on harmonica, the lone encore of “Baba O’Riley” featured violinist Jacoby recreating the frenzied section that ends the song on the Who’s Next album.  

Few arena acts, let alone a classic rock act playing an arena, can make such a venue feel so intimate and yet rock so emphatically hard. Even in their 70s, The Who remained unmatched in a live setting. 

With the first leg of the Moving On Tour! completed in Pittsburgh and a new studio album coming out later this year, The Who continue to move forward. As the band showed and what the audience felt was that the Who cares. Townshend began the night with one of numerous smiles that was matched by those looking back at him. He left the stage stating “I love you” and the feeling was mutual.