Monday night, rock icons Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend returned to Denver with their latest incarnation of The Who and wowed the Ball Arena from start to finish on the final stretch of The Who Hits Back tour. Supported by a 42-piece orchestra, listeners got an ear full that captured the in-your-face sound that has been throttling audiences for nearly six decades. Expectations were high as Daltrey and Townsend had once again enlisted exceptional talent to deliver their beloved and celebrated rock anthems, including top notch guitar talent Simon Townsend, drummer extraordinaire Zak Starkey, session guru Jon Button on bass, vocalist Billy Nichols, and Loren Gold and Emily Marshall on keyboard and piano.
Conducted by Keith Levenson, the orchestral component of the evening bookended the twenty-one-song single set, performing on a number of tracks from the band’s legendary rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia. Fitting nicely in the middle of the symphonious sandwich, the mid-section of the evening saw the departure of the orchestra and featured fan favorites and cuts from various albums that resulted in numerous moments of audience participation, as everyone inside the ship achieved lift off amidst the raw, pared down sound of the core configuration.
The show promptly got started at half past 7pm with an upbeat performance by Mike Campbell and The Dirty Knobs. Being a heavy contributor and collaborator to Tom Petty for nearly fifty years, Campbell’s walk-on reception was loud enough to easily see that much of the crowd was there to see his talent as much as they were the headliner. Although short, his band’s set was sweet to say the least and showcased many of The Heartbreakers tunes he penned or contributed to during his time with Petty. It was great to see this opener get the recognition they deserve and that many of the seats were filled prior to their start.
At a quarter to nine, the main event had arrived, and the crowd took to their feet in raucous applause to welcome The Who. The set started with Townshend welcoming everyone:
“So….we finally found you! 1,000 miles from f*$king anywhere! But it was worth looking for you and finding you. Good to be here. Welcome, thanks for coming. Thanks to Mike Campbell and his band, making a nuisance of themselves. Prepare because we start a little slowly before we reach that kind of tempo.”
With a belly full of laughter, the audience strapped in. The first notes of the full orchestra performing “Overture” from Tommy hit the audience in radiance and grabbed everyone by their inner attention, heralding all eyes and ears stageward. With pristine sound for such a large arena, the conglomerate talent continued to deliver on the tale of the deaf, dumb, and blind boy with “1921”, “Amazing Journey”, “Sparks”, “Pinball Wizard”, and “We’re Not Gonna Take It”. For the deep Who fan, getting to hear these tracks in this format took the level of these cherished numbers to a whole new level. The strings severed, the vocal accompaniment called to the heavens, the horns rang out in triumph, all anchored by the gritty rock cornerstone at its center. Movement one concluded with great takes on “Who Are You?”, “Eminence Front”, and relative newcomer “Ball and Chain” from The Who’s 2019 studio album Who.
As the orchestra departed the stage, Townshend joked once again:
“The orchestra is taking a break. You know, they start very early in the day, starting about 6 o’clock in the morning, rehearsing all this rock and roll music. They are great musicians, all great people. They are all from this neighborhood. They are all great mountaineers. They all know how to get a diesel truck over the mountains.”
“You Better You Bet” was up first and it was great to hear that the band had it all together without the accompaniment. “The Seeker” followed and kept the energy rolling high. The piano accents played nicely against the Townshend twins feedback and had the oval swelling. Daltrey belted it out like a man on a mission. The soulful stare of “Naked Eye” gazed upon the heart of everyone in the round and showed the stage talent’s ability to lay out it slow and sweet as well as they do cranking it to eleven. “Another Tricky Day” brought everyone back on line with its punchy accents and upbeat tempo.
Following a long pause, a singular familiar chord shook the walls of the hall as Townshend rang out the opening familiar rift of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, sending the crowd into a frenzy. The delivery was what one would expect: electric, gnarled, eargasmic. Daltrey’s primal scream at the tune’s apex hit the spirit animal of everyone in that room and the place just exploded.
In perfect counterpoint, Daltrey brought “lead violinist and librarian” Katie Jacoby, cellist Audrey Snyder, and Randy Landau on upright bass to envelope the audience in the emotional tune “Behind Blue Eyes”. With Townshend on acoustic, the stringed serenade added another layer of penetrating melancholy that seemingly stretched time and conjured wishful thinking that the moment would never end.
At its close, the orchestra returned, and the many-headed beast wasted no time jumping headfirst into the Quadrophenia portion of the program, launching right into “The Real Me”. Jon Button seemed possessed by Entwhistle himself as he belted out those familiar bass lines of old. “I’m One” was strong and continued the evening-long wow the audience had been experiencing from the start. “5:15” upped the ante and delivered great thunder via Starkey’s thick tom work while the brass shone loud and clear. This number was certainly a highlight as it got the improvisational treatment and stretched out at nearly 8 minutes. Great guitar interplay between Simon and his brother Pete here as well. “The Rock” was performed with its monolithic power, strong and solid, rising above the crowd in grandeur. “Love, Reign O’er Me” started with a long piano intro and had a slow burn to its dizzying apical inferno, leaving only ashes and smiles in its wake.
Before capping off the night, Townshend graciously took the time to introduce the majority of players on the stage for the evening, each receiving a well-earned standing ovation from the audience. With one more in the tank, the group made good with a legendary performance of “Baba O’Riley”. The pulse and surge ebbed and flowed, and spotlighted Jacoby center stage, having relinquished her first chair for a standing performance as she incorporated a jig while shredding the heck out of the neck of that fiddle at a blistering speed as the band and audience stared in awe, the librarian having the final note.
Although the group has been using a relatively standard setlist for most gigs on the tour, this aspect certainly did not detract from the performance. Both Roger and Pete displayed the moves that have contributed to their infamy, Daltrey swinging his mic to the rafters like a mad pendulum as Townshend windmilled his way through power chords, both spectacles driving those in attendance to their feet and out of their minds. At the close of yet another great performance by the band that just will not quit, patrons got treated to more than two hours of great rock and roll, energy, and a head full of memories that won’t soon be forgotten. Neither of the founding members demonstrated any signs of slowing and the execution maintained the same level of prowess until the last note. Daltrey’s vocals were on point all the way through and Townshend shone with an inner youth that reflected he is still loving every moment of this lifelong endeavor. For anyone who has ever been a fan of this band, it looks like we get to keep them around for a bit longer so make sure to get out and see them because you never know when it might come to an end.