The Who triumphs and disappoints at orchestral concert in San Diego

Lead singer Roger Daltrey (left) and guitarist Pete Townshend are shown at the Hollywood Bowl Saturday, where The Who performed as part of its orchestral "Moving On!"tour prior to the legendary English rock band's Wednesday night San Diego concert at Viejas Arena.
(Photo Álex Mónico / Los Angeles Times )

The legendary rock band is on its first tour with an orchestra, a combination not well-suited to concerts in basketball arenas


Were there two concerts taking place simultaneously when The Who performed Wednesday night at San Diego State University’s Viejas Arena?

For this listener, and likely others, absolutely.

The first concert was stirring and ambitious, but suffered from an annoyingly muddled sound mix that repeatedly marred the music. The second was equally stirring and ambitious, but boasted the pristine audio quality essential for a concert by one of rock’s most legendary bands and a 51-piece orchestra.

OK, I’ll admit the second concert was taking place in my imagination. But, surely, other attendees here wondered how much more rewarding and enjoyable the concert could have been in a more intimate venue. Make that a more intimate venue with first-rate sound suitable for capturing and clearly projecting all the instrumental textures and nuances, the fire and finesse, that the band, orchestra and audience deserved to experience.

Might an intimate venue like the 492-seat La Jolla Playhouse have qualified?

Probably not, although that’s where Who guitarist and creative mastermind Pete Townshend sat in for two songs Monday night, including “Pinball Wizard,” during “The Who’s ‘Tommy’ — A Staged Concert Benefiting La Jolla Playhouse.” With a first-rate, 10-piece band, no fewer than 20 singers (many of them veterans of the Tony Award-winning Broadway production of “Tommy”) and an expert sound designer and engineer, the audio quality Monday was exemplary.

Alas, the Playhouse’s stage is simply too small to comfortably accommodate an orchestra, Townshend, 74, singer Roger Daltrey, 75, and the five-man band that constitutes the rest of the current touring edition of The Who. And, no doubt, far more than 492 fans would have wanted to see The Who in San Diego on the first orchestral tour of its 55-year career.

But the nearly 13,000 capacity Viejas Arena, the site for home games by SDSU’s Aztecs basketball team, is decidedly ill-suited to host any concert by a rock band and orchestra together. And while the set list was rich in Who classics — from such early hits as “Substitute” and “I Can See For Miles” (both done sans orchestra) to “The Real Me” and the concert-closing “Baba O’Riley” — the promise of hearing the power and glory of a symphonic-rock concert was nullified by the constant collisions of instruments and tonal frequencies that ensued. (The full set list appears below.)

The problem wasn’t the orchestra, which was ably conducted by Keith Levenson and included French horn player Cynthia McGregor (a Southwestern College dean) and members of the San Diego Symphony. Nor was the problem Townshend, who was in fine form throughout, or Daltrey, who sang reasonably well for much of the 132-minute concert. Both Who co-founders seemed even more vital and engaged than at their winning 2016 show here at Valley View Casino Center (which last year was re-named Pechanga Arena San Diego).

Rather, the problem was the sound, which was too often a blaring, jumbled din. Any number of instruments, from harp to timpani, were virtually inaudible except for a few fleeting seconds during the 22-song performance. The music blared and nearly any hint of nuance was lost.

Moreover, The Who’s usually excellent drummer, Zak Starkey, used an electronic kit that sounded thuddy and largely indistinct, at least in those instances when it could be adequately heard. In several instances, Starkey could be seen motioning or complaining between songs about audio issues he was encountering.

Skill, dedication, timeless songs

The Who's Simon Townshend (far left) and drummer Zak Starkey are shown at Saturday's Hollywood Bowl concert by the band with lead singer Roger Daltrey (center) and guitarist Pete Townshend.
The Who’s Simon Townshend (far left) and drummer Zak Starkey are shown at Saturday’s Hollywood Bowl concert by the band with lead singer Roger Daltrey (center) and guitarist Pete Townshend.
(Photo by Álex Mónico / Los Angeles Times)

The orchestra’s members, all but two of whom are locally based, played along to electronic click tracks in order to stay in sync with the band. It was a functional move designed to prevent aural chaos. But the booming, bouncing sound in the cavernous arena created aural chaos nonetheless. The moments when the orchestra could be better heard, such as the elegant brass section arrangement on the Townshend-sung ballad “I’m One,” were sadly few and far between.

How, then, did the Who snatch triumph from the jaws of apparent sonic-pudding defeat?

Through skill, dedication, sheer force of will and having a repertoire packed with so many timeless songs. Or, as Daltrey told the enthusiastic audience of perhaps 8,000 at the conclusion of the concert: “Our youth is gone. Our glamour is gone. But our music is better than ever, and it’s because of Pete Townshend.”

The concert opened with six selections from The Who’s 1969 rock-opera, “Tommy,” culminating with a suitably rousing “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” The set list was designed to give Daltrey several breaks to rest his voice, although the decision to do the extended “Quadrophenia” album instrumental, “The Rock,” as the third-from-last number threw the pacing off.

Daltrey, who last month suffered a bout of bronchitis, performed several songs in lower keys than on the original versions, but often sounded stronger hitting high notes than he did in his mid-range.

“Won’t Get Fooled Again,” one of the mightiest songs in The Who’ canon of mighty songs, was re-tooled as an acoustic duet by Townshend and Daltrey. It worked surprisingly well in stripped-down, campfire sing-along mode. Still, one wondered if the unplugged version was also designed to spare Daltrey from executing the epic scream that provided “Won’t Get Fooled Again’s” climax in its recorded version on the landmark “Who’s Next” album in 1971 (and at concerts by the band for decades thereafter). There was no scream Wednesday.

Townshend sang “Eminence Front” with soulful passion. His biting guitar work throughout the concert was inspired, even if some of his patented windmill strums seemed more simulated than real. Although Wednesday’s audience did not exclusively consist of Baby Boomers, Townshend at one point joked that a millennial at a recent Who concert kept a low profile “because he was afraid the old people would eat him!”

The concert also included two winning songs, “Hero Ground Zero” and the blues-tinged “Ball and Chain,” from the upcoming new Who album, “WHO,” which is due out Dec. 6.

“The themes (on the new album) are hopefully ones that give both Roger and me something to stand by and speak for,” Townshend said in a recent Union-Tribune interview. “That means the songs are about getting older in pop music and in life and love. There are also songs that align with activism in some ways, especially the way we in the world respond to national and international tragedies.”

Violinist Katie Jacoby and cellist Audrey Snyder were featured on “Behind Blue Eyes,” one of several numbers that had many fans singing along, word for word. Jacoby took center stage for the jig-like violin solo on “Baba O’Riley,” which ended the concert on a high note.

Given the over-amped sonic malaise that marred much of the concert, the best summation may have come mid-set from Daltrey, just before The Who performed five songs without the orchestra.

“They deserve a break, while we go back to being the little band we were,” he said. “The little band with the big noise. That’s why we’re all stone (expletive) deaf!”

The Who are shown in action at the band's Wednesday night Viejas Arena concert, at which the group was accompanied by a 51-piece orchestra.
(Photo by George Varga / Union-Tribune)

The Who, Viejas Arena set list

1. “Overture

2. “1921”

3. “Amazing Journey”

4. “Sparks”

5. “Pinball Wizard”

6. “We’re Not Gonna Take It”

7. “Who Are You”

8. “Eminence Front”

9. “Imagine a Man”

10. “Hero Ground Zero”

11. “Substitute” (without orchestra)

12. “I Can See for Miles” (without orchestra)

13. “You Better You Bet” (without orchestra)

14. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (without orchestra)

15. “Behind Blue Eyes” (without orchestra)

16. “Ball and Chain”

17. “The Real Me”

18. “I’m One”

19. “5:15”

20. “The Rock”

21. “Love, Reign O’er Me”

22. “Baba O’Riley”