The Who Rock New York, Backed By Symphonic Orchestra

Singer-songwriter Leslie Mendelson opens with captivating set

Last year, I read several stories about Roger Daltrey being pretty candid about aging, saying he’d stop performing if he realized his voice was no longer up to par. While other music artists haven’t followed through on similar retirement talk and The Who previously suggested their 50th anniversary tour could be their last, Daltrey’s above comments felt genuine to me. When I learned about Moving On! tour, I got a ticket right away, thinking this may well be my third and last time to see one of my favorite British bands. But there was one detail that I somehow had completely missed. Apart from traditional touring musicians, Moving On! features local symphonic orchestras backing Daltrey and Pete Townshend. Frankly, I’m not sure I would have jumped to get a ticket, had I known that.

In general, the thought of combining a rock band with a symphonic orchestra gives me mixed feelings. One can easily picture that the former gets drowned out by the latter or that the music becomes overly massive and feels overproduced. On the other hand, The Who are known for a grandiose sound. So did the combination work Monday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City? For the most part it did for me, so my initial ignorance about the details of the tour wasn’t a bad thing after all.

Roger Daltrey & Pete Townshend

Before getting to The Who, I’d like to say a few words about New York singer-songwriter Leslie Mendelson, who performed a captivating opening set. In 2009, following the release of her second album Swan Feathers, Mendelson was compared to Carole King and Rickie Lee Jones, and her record was nominated for a Grammy. Then a series of setbacks stopped her upward trajectory, but things seem to look more promising again for Mendelson these days. A new album, If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…, is almost done. She’s currently raising money through Kickstarter to support promotion for a planned autumn release.

Monday night, Mendelson was accompanied by her longtime collaborator Steve McEwan, a British songwriter and musician, who played a vintage-looking electric guitar and provided backing vocals. Since I wanted to conserve my aging smartphone battery, unfortunately, I didn’t take any footage, but here’s a clip of The Hardest Part, a single from the new record, captured last December at a much smaller venue. The guy in the clip is McEwan. I’m pretty impressed with Mendelson and plan to do a separate post on her in the near future.

After a short intermission it was time for The Who! The first section of their show was with orchestra and mostly focused on songs from Tommy, The Who’s first rock opera from May 1969 – an appropriate choice, as the album nears its 50th anniversary of release on May 23. It started with the record’s first five tracks: Overture, It’s A Boy, 1921, Amazing Journey and Sparks. This was followed by Pinball Wizard and We’re Not Gonna Take It.  The remainder of the first section featured tunes from various other albums, including Who Are You (Who Are You, 1978), Eminence Front (It’s Hard, 1982),  Imagine A Man (The Who By Numbers, 1975) and the non-album single Join Together (1972). Here’s We’re Not Gonna Take It, the final track from Tommy, which like most Who songs was written by Townshend.

The middle section of the concert featured The Who only. Daltrey jokingly pointed out that union rules required the orchestra to take a break and now it was only the band, “so we can fuck up things even more.” The section consisted of five songs: Non-album single Substitute (1966), I Can See For Miles (The Who Sell Out, 1967),  Won’t Get Fooled Again and Behind Blue Eyes (both Who’s Next, 1971) and Tea & Theatre (Endless Wire, 2006). Here is I Can See For Miles.

Perhaps the highlight of the section was an acoustic rendition of Won’t Get Fooled Again. Unfortunately, I didn’t capture it, in part to conserve battery, but here’s a clip from the tour opener in Madison, Wis. Even though the camera person was much closer to the stage than I was, the MSG performance felt more dynamic, so I feel the footage doesn’t do it full justice. Or maybe it was the excitement of the moment!

The third and last section of the show, which saw the return of the orchestra, almost entirely focused on Quadrophenia. The Who’s second rock opera perhaps is the album that best lends itself to the use of symphonic orchestration. It’s the band’s only record that was entirely composed by Pete Townshend. Here’s section opener The Real Me, one of favorite Who tunes.

Other tracks from Quadrophenia included I’m One, The Punk And The Godfather, 5:15, Drowned, The Rock and the mighty Love, Reign O’er Me. Of course, I couldn’t resist recording the last track, so here it is.

By the time I had Love, Reign O’er Me in the can, my phone battery was on life support, so I couldn’t capture the show’s finale, Baba O’Riley, another tune from the Who’s Next album. Luckily somebody else who was there did, so I’m borrowing their clip – thanks, “ForgottenNYC”! Check out the solo by amazing lead violonist Katie Jacoby, which starts at around 3:40 min – that woman stole the show from Townshend, at least temporarily!

Monday night saw Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend in excellent shape. Daltrey still commands the stage, singing with a strong voice and swinging his microphone like a mad man, while Townshend continues to be a kickass windmilling rock guitarist. One could almost forget these guys are in their mid-70s! I think they also deserve credit for continuing to push the envelope at this stage in their careers, when they could have played it safe instead of bringing in a symphonic orchestra. The fans including myself would have been perfectly happy with a “regular” performance.

I must also mention the great backing band: Simon Townshend (guitar, mandolin, backing vocals), Pete’s younger brother; Zak Starkey (drums), son of Ringo Starr, who has been The Who’s touring drummer since 1996; Loren Gold (keyboards, backing vocals), and one of the standouts in addition to Jacoby; and Jon Button (bass).

Upcoming dates for the Moving On! tour include Noblesville, Ind (May 18); Tinley Park, Ill (May 21); St. Louis (May 23); Philadelphia (May 25); and Detroit (May 28). The full schedule is available here.

Sources: Wikipedia, setlist.fm, Leslie Mendelson website, The Who website, YouTube

The Venues: Rockpalast/Rockpalast Nacht

The 6-hour German TV live program featured top music artists between 1977 and 1986

Rockpalast is a live music program broadcast on the German television station Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR). It became particularly known for Rockpalast Nacht, a six-hour live late-night show featuring concerts from top international artists.

The inaugural Rockpalast Nacht aired on July 23 and 24, 1977. The line-up included Rory Gallagher, Little Feat and Roger McGuinn’s Thunderbyrd. Fifteen additional shows followed until the 17th and final Rockpalast Nacht on March 15 and 16, 1986. That show featured Big Country, Jackson Browne and the German rock band BAP.

The concert events were conducted at Grugahalle, a well known concert hall in the German town of Essen, and broadcast throughout Europe. The TV show was simulcast on various radio stations, so viewers could mute their TV sets and instead use their home stereos to listen to the sound for better quality.

Rockpalast Nacht mostly featured three or four rock bands. Typically, it mixed relatively unknown artists with top international acts, such as Peter Gabriel, The Police or The Who. The program helped put various music artists on the map in Europe, such as ZZ Top and Bryan Adams. Rockpalast Night gained cult status and is considered a unique program in German and European television history.

Following are clips from throughout the program’s 10-year history.

Roger McGuinn’s Thunderbyrd/Turn! Turn! Turn!, Mr. Tambourine Man & Eight Miles High (1st Rockpalast Nacht, July 23-24, 1977)

Peter Gabriel/Solsbury Hill (3rd Rockpalast Nacht, June 15-16, 1978)

ZZ Top/Dust My Broom (6th Rockpalast Nacht, April 19-20, 1980)

The Police/Message In a Bottle (7th Rockpalast Nacht, October 18-19, 1980)

The Who/Baba O’Riley (8th Rockpalast Nacht, March 28-29, 1981)

The Kinks/Add It Up (10th Rockpalast Nacht, April 3-4, 1982)

Joe Jackson/I’m the Man (12th Rockpalast Nacht, April 16-17, 1983)

Cheap Trick/Surrender (13th Rockpalast Nacht, October 15-16, 1983)

Wolf Maahn & Die Deserteure/Der Clown Hat Den Blues (15th Rockpalast Nacht, March 30-31, 1985)

BAP/Verdamp Lang Her (17th Rockpalast Nacht, March 15-16, 1986)

With the 17th Rockpalast Nacht, the program stopped in 1986. Rockpalast resumed production in 1995 and continues to air to this day, though Rockpalast Nacht remains history.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rockpalast website/Archive, YouTube