Today’s Local Spins Rewind feature looks back to May 2019 when classic rock icons The Who opened their North American tour with help from Grand Rapids Symphony musicians. Fans are still arguing over this one.
EDITOR’S NOTE: On this day in 2019, Local Spins published a review of the tour-opening show at Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena starring classic rock legends The Who, aka Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey. It was an elaborate and somewhat controversial North American tour, with The Who adding a 50-piece orchestra to its rock ‘n’ roll performances. Some fans were critical of opening-night glitches in the elaborate production, but The Who’s creative director, Tom Kenny, contacted Local Spins after the show and described the challenges of assembling an orchestra-enhanced rock show. The story ranks as one of Local Spins’ most-read posts in history, so we revisit it on Mother’s Day 2021. Scroll down for a photo gallery, video and set list.
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The Who’s opening volley of its “Moving On” tour at Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena in early May 2019 was a monumental undertaking for a band whose frontmen, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, are in their 70s and have been at it for more than a half-century.
The band’s decision to add a locally grown 50-piece orchestra to every show on its North American tour is daunting in and of itself, adding dozens of bodies and an extra load of visual and sonic elements to the mix.
Local Spins reviewer Enrique Olmos noted that the band’s first show in Grand Rapids since 2017 — helmed by legendary songwriters/frontmen Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, and accompanied by Ringo Starr’s son, Zak Starkey and Pete Townshend’s brother, Simon Townshend on guitar/mandolin (plus bassist Jon Button and keyboardist Loren Gold) — was “a carefully executed, dynamic two-hour, 22-song performance for a packed house.”
Accompanied by members of the Grand Rapids Symphony and some out-of-town musicians, The Who performed on a sprawling stage with the orchestra taking up twice as much room as the band itself. Strings flanking the group on either side, horns, an entire percussion section perched on risers at the very back of the stage.
With limited rehearsals, Olmos wrote that the ensemble “sounded wonderfully tentative. … Problem is, the two struggled to combine, making for a half-classical, half-rock show, but never really anywhere in the middle.” Read the rest of his review here.
Interestingly, to provide more insights into the opening-night production, veteran lighting designer and The Who’s creative director Tom Kenny contacted Local Spins after Olmos noted the absence of “a light show or stage decor,” with only “minimal stage lights and a ruffled backdrop.”
That was for good reason, Kenny pointed out.
“The reason we have a minimal-looking stage visuals is to not distract from the music,” he offered.
“As a very visual band, normally with big screens and big light shows (and) laser shows, we decided to create a show which is just about the music experience and the set being human beings and organic rather than LED and supportive content and flash and theatrics.”
Kenny also insisted that the “Moving On” tour represented another “great experiment” by a band that’s always pushed the boundaries.
“With The Who, they always take risks and having worked for them since 1989, this is another great experiment … to see in this world of visual distraction how we can focus fans back to music at a concert,” he added.
LOVING MICHIGAN AND ‘THE WONDERFUL BRILLIANT MUSICIANS IN GRAND RAPIDS’
Kenny also effusively complimented members of the Grand Rapids Symphony and other musicians who comprised the backing orchestra on that opening night.
“One of the reasons the band chose Grand Rapids was its good music background audience and the fact they hadn’t performed to their fans in GR for awhile,” he said.
“They love performing in Michigan and had heard how great the orchestra (was). They were outstanding. Wonderful local players … I was just talking to band and they loved your local orchestra. … They loved all the wonderful brilliant musicians in Grand Rapids that helped them make a fabulous show.”
And while there are always opening-night blemishes, Kenny said the Grand Rapids fans were incredibly supportive.
“We had a line of audience members both young and old walk past the front of house area and compliment how wonderful it was to sit and enjoy a big rock show while not having to concentrate on anything but musicians,” he noted. “(That’s) unusual for our fans who I’ve blinded many a time.”
On Facebook, one fan called the show “quite a different Who experience, but still cool. ‘Tommy’ and ‘Quadrophenia’ tunes really jumped with the orchestra.” But another fan questioned the sometimes-out-of-sync orchestral approach, saying “it distracted from many of the songs.”
The “dangerous” and risky nature of that first night’s production is spelled out in detail in a revealing blog by Brian Kehew on The Who’s website. Check out backstage photos of the orchestra and get an unusual look into what goes into such a mammoth production here.
PHOTO GALLERY: The Who, Dirty Honey at Van Andel Arena
Photos by Anthony Norkus
VIDEO: The Who, “Love, Reign O’er Me” (Grand Rapids)