(Little Caesar’s Arena, Detroit, MI - May 29th, 2019)
The Who changed my life when I was 11 years old. That sounds lofty, I know, but it’s true. My Dad played Tommy for me for the first time that year, and I have never thought of music in the same way since.
So when I told my Dad that our mutual favorite rock band was playing what could well have been their farewell tour (they christened it “Moving On”), we both knew that we had to be there.
And we were.
At Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit last Tuesday, surviving members Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, along with the rest of the band that comprises the Who these days, gave us the show that we’d been hoping to see.
But before them came the Arkells, a band from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. They were an eight-piece outfit who were kinda groovy with a lead singer that reminded me a bit of The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie.
The Arkells played to an enthusiastic house that was about two-thirds full, which can only be explained by the outrageously long lines at the merch tables. “We see you singing along,” their front man told us. "We appreciate that.”
The band played through half an hour’s worth of material, most of which suffered from lack of song identification; I was able to pick out ‘People’s Champ,’ though, only because I’d read before the show that ‘People’s Champ’ was written as a protest song against the current American Presidential administration.
By the end of their set, I was able to draw exactly three conclusions about the Arkells:
First – they delivered mightily on their pledge to “do our best for you tonight.”
Second – the small section of horns in the band could have easily moonlighted in the orchestra that would play later in the evening.
Third – I would absolutely check out their studio stuff. Maybe then I’d find out useful information like the names of songs or the names of the musicians.
The Arkells went off, and it was set change time. Normally set changes can be boring, but this particular set change included a photo montage of the Who, promos for the Teen Cancer America foundation that Daltrey and Townshend patron, and a very special tribute to the lately deceased Russ Gibb, head honcho of the Grande Ballroom; the legendary Detroit venue that hosted the Who in some of their earliest American gigs.
Before too long, though, it was time.
The Who took the stage to thunderous applause, and maestro Pete gave a lovely little welcome, cheering on the progress that Detroit has made. “You’re gonna get it right,” he told us.
But enough talk. The 1969 masterpiece Tommy was up first, and the orchestra that had been the Fun New Thing for this tour dove straight into the ‘Overture.’
Orchestral arrangements are everything that Pete Townshend’s grand works demand, and my hands could barely take notes they were shaking so much with pure excitement and ecstasy at hearing my favorite album already done so well.
‘Amazing Journey’ (personal album favorite) brought Daltrey’s trademark microphone spins, which was further proof that he just owns the stage.
Drummer Zak Starkey and the orchestra masterfully took the lead in ‘Sparks.’
The Tommy set was abbreviated, so we skipped right ahead to ‘Pinball Wizard and the audience’s collective mindfreak. Even further on, ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ seemed very much a 2019 disillusionment anthem, and the majestic ‘See Me, Feel Me/Listening to You’ at the end of the song was absolutely transcendent.
It was here that Pete let loose a proper series of guitar windmills – a fitting end to that portion of the show.
And honestly, if that had been the end of the entire show, I would have been completely content – a testament to how effin’ good it was. Pete addressed the crowd once again, expressing gratitude for all of us taking the time and money to come out and support them, recognizing that this was “not a cheap gig.”
Whatever. If the Who showed out like this each time, I would pay more than the cost of my ticket – that’s how effin’ good it was.
A string of radio hits came next. ‘Who Are You’ had everyone singing along like it was an episode of CSI, and ‘Eminence Front’ got an inexplicably loud cheer.
Some lite string work at the beginning of ‘Imagine a Man managed to turn a song I normally dislike into something excellent. And ‘Join Together’ melded several elements of The Who’s dynamic in general that I love the most: Multi-instrumentalism could in keyboardist Loren Gold rocking the mouth harp, crowd participation when Daltrey conducted the crowd in the singing of the chorus, and most importantly – the sense of unity the band cultivates with their audience; it is this aspect that I’ve always appreciated the most.
The post-script to that particular number was a personal highlight, in which Pete shared an anecdote about the late, great John Entwistle and how unimpressed he always seemed, and how Pete echoes the sentiment by the time ‘Join Together’ nears its end.
“If you haven’t joined the band by minute eight, you’re not getting any more promotions,” he concluded, laughing. And we all laughed too.
It’s that unity I’d mentioned.
The orchestra took a well-deserved break, and the hits kept coming with only the band to supply them. If there was a “lowlight” to the show, it was a plunky false start on ‘I Can See for Miles.’
But even that was amusing as Roger sheepishly blamed it on a “senior moment,” while Pete pinned the misstep on “Roger being creative.” Needless to say, the banter was on point.
An acoustic ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ seemed a weird flex, absent all but Roger and Pete onstage, and missing the iconic bombastic scream near the end. But it certainly commanded the largest audience participation of the evening so far.
‘Tea and Theatre’ off of 2006’s Endless Wire was another odd duck because, according to Pete, “many of you have never f***ing heard it!” But at the same time, he admonished us to “listen to this one, it’s nice.”
And it was – a quiet, pensive sort of song reflecting on the relationship between the guitarist and the singer.
The Quadrophenia set brought back the orchestra to play Pete’s other, 1973 magnum opus as the rock god had intended. And while the title track from the album would have been the best choice to make full use of the instrumentation, cuts like ‘The Real Me,’ ‘The Punk and The Godfather,’ and ‘5:15’ did the job.
On the previous Who tours I’ve seen, the latter track featured a thundering video cameo by bassist Entwistle. Here, however, the interlude space was filled with an absolutely shredding guitar run by Simon Townshend.
Pete’s solo turn on vocals for ‘Drowned’ was nothing short of excellent, while the instrumental ‘The Rock’ was accompanied by a video montage showing mostly the lowlights of the last fifty years or so, which included – among many, many other things – Vietnam, Nixon, John Lennon, the Berlin Wall, Princess Diana, September 11, and the immigration crisis, mashed up with footage of the band and a raging sea.
The orchestra sawed through the song, becoming equally the cause and the cure for the splitting headache I’d leave the venue with.
The absolute highlight of the entire thing was the last song of the Quadrophenia set. ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ began with an absolutely stunning piano solo by Loren Gold, and only got better from there.
Daltrey took what has always been my favorite rock vocal to the absolute height of his limits, never once sounding weak or worn even after a two hour show.
He gave 1000% percent of himself to the song, and to us, more than earning the standing ovation we leapt up to give as the final notes crashed down. I wish I could link video of it to this review so that I could show you just how effin’ great it was!
Pete introduced the main band – Simon Townshend (guitars), Jon Button (bass), Zak Starkey (drums) – and gave a special nod to the orchestra, saying they would give us one more song, closing the whole thing out in “a traditional way.”
‘Baba O’Riley’ was the perfect final touch, with the enduring lyrics about teenage wasteland and the skills and presence of lead violinist Katie Jacoby wrapped the whole evening up quite nicely.
The band took their bows, we cheered ourselves hoarse, and that was it. It was over. I’ll happily put my hand on my record collection and swear I have never been more disappointed to see the ending of a concert – and I’ve been to many excellent ones in my twenty-seven years.
But this was next level. Was this the Who’s final show in Detroit? I sure hope not. But on the off chance it is, to my all-time favorite band, all I can say is thank you.
Thank you for Tuesday, thank you for being the soundtrack to so much of my life, and for being the source of so many wonderful memories for my Dad and me.
Even if the Song is over, the Note is eternal.
Long Live Rock.
Review by: Ashley J. Cicotte
Photos by: to Elaine Cromie (Detroit Free Press)