The Who hit wondrous highs, disappointing lows, at symphony-backed Alpine Valley Music Theatre show

Piet Levy
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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About halfway through the Who’s Alpine Valley Music Theatre show Sunday, guitarist Pete Townshend heaped some major praise on the 48-piece symphony behind him — largely consisting of Wisconsin musicians — and making a confession in the process.

“They’re all 50 times better than we will ever be,” Townshend said. “They can do anything pretty much, these guys. We’re so honored to be able to play with such fine players.” 

As a founding member of one of the most influential rock bands of all time, Townshend was underselling his talents a bit. But Sunday night, the orchestra did consistently play better than the band itself.

The Who performs with a 48-piece orchestra at Alpine Valley Music Theatre on Sept. 8, 2019.

The Who — which also features founding member Roger Daltrey on vocals — was pretty spotty three years back at the Bradley Center, for the group's 50th anniversary tour, and there were moments Sunday when they seemed even more worn down.

The definite low point during the two-hour set: "Won't Get Fooled Again," one of the band's greatest heart-pumping hits, recast as a two-man performance with only one acoustic guitar. There was nothing wrong with the format — an intimate acoustic moment with just Daltrey and Townshend would have been welcome, and could have been touching — but it was the absolute wrong song choice, made worse with the band's insistence that it be rendered as a foot-stomping rocker, with Daltrey seemingly thrown by Townshend's off-tempo, herky-jerky playing.

"Pick up my guitar and play/Just like yesterday," Daltrey sang, but his strained, thin vocals illustrated just how far removed "yesterday" really was. Daltrey didn't even bother trying to sing the song's signature screams. 

Then again, given the state of his vocals Sunday, that may have been for the best (though it may have been better if "Won't Get Fooled Again" was skipped altogether).

Daltrey was off to a decent start, sounding lovely and smooth for "Imagine a Man" 10 songs in. But these are hard songs for a weathered, 75-year-old voice. He tried to mask some shortcomings with dramatic presence and signature mic-swinging flair, but there were times, like for "I Can See for Miles," where it seemed his voice might crash and burn.  

To their credit, the Who tried something new Sunday. They're releasing their first album of original songs in 13 years this November, and they took the opportunity to preview two tracks at Alpine — "Hero Ground Zero" and "Ball and Chain," the likely single, Townshend said, previously released as a solo tune called "Guantanamo." Neither of them made much of an impression, however. 

Also new for the Who: This is the first tour that the band's performed with a backing orchestra. Townshend Sunday admitted he initially wasn't keen on the idea, without really detailing his hesitation. Perhaps it was a legitimate concern that the band would get lost, which did happen in the beginning. 

But the lush and bombastic orchestrations, largely arranged by David Campbell, were splendidly rendered, and it was such a treat hearing songs from "Tommy" presented as originally envisioned for the groundbreaking rock opera, which was released five decades ago this year.

The orchestra also fittingly had the final say Sunday with the glorious, pulse-quickening climax for "Baba O'Riley," the show closer, with Katie Jacoby bringing the song's violin solo to exquisite life. 

Along with the 25-minute "Tommy" salute at the set's start, there was a five-song nod to "Quadrophenia" near the set's end, which offered a better balance between the band and the orchestra. Ringo Starr's son Zak Starkey had his strongest, Keith Moon-channeling drum display during "The Rock," and Daltrey played a dollop of sweet harmonica for "I'm One" underneath Townshend's pleasingly gruff voice and intricate acoustic guitar. 

Townshend also led the way for the band and orchestra's strongest collaboration, singing "Eminence Front" with snarled cynicism, contrasted by his cool, gnarly blues rock guitar and the symphony's cinematic sweep. And while Daltrey initially struggled with his vocals on "Love, Reign O'er Me," he did hit the soaring wail by the end. 

It was in that moment, as rain actually started to fall over Alpine Valley, that the Who managed to live up to their legend. 

Milwaukee's Dead Horses open

Americana act Dead Horses, from Milwaukee, opened for The Who at Alpine Valley Music Theatre on Sept. 8, 2019.

The Who show didn’t just showcase a few dozen orchestral players from the state. The opener was one of Milwaukee’s finest bands, Dead Horses. 

Consisting of singer and guitarist Sarah Vos and bassist Daniel Wolff, the Americana act expanded to a five-piece Sunday, with a drummer, cellist and flutist. But Vos’ beautifully phrased, haunted and hopeful lyrics remained the focal point. They also scaled back the extended live jams, but an offbeat, jazzy take of “My Mother the Moon,” the title track of their terrific 2018 album, gave a taste of their extended talents. You can get the complete Dead Horses show experience Sept. 14 when the band headlines the Pabst Theater for the first time.

The takeaways

  • Beyond the "Tommy" milestone, The Who's return Sunday marks a special anniversary for local fans. It was 30 years ago this summer that the band last played Alpine Valley for a three-night run of its ‘89 comeback tour.
  • Even though Townshend is 74, he was still able to do his dizzying, windmill-style guitar strokes multiple times Sunday. There was also a fiery tribute to Jimi Hendrix during “1921,” via a snippet of “Foxy Lady” on electric guitar.
  • My drive into Alpine was my shortest of the season, with the two-mile gridlock in the final stretch lasting only 15 minutes. (At Jimmy Buffett in July, it was about an hour.) This looked to be one of the thinner crowds of the season, too — eyeballing the hill and lower bowl, I’d guess around 12,000 to 15,000 — which wasn’t surprising, considering the show fell on a Sunday in September. Leaving was still a drag: It took 30 minutes just to drive out of the parking lot.

The set list

1. "Overture"

2. "It's a Boy"

3. "1921"

4. "Amazing Journey"

5. "Sparks"

6. "Pinball Wizard"

7. "We're Not Gonna Take It"

8. "Who Are You"

9. "Eminence Front"

10. "Imagine a Man"

11. "Hero Ground Zero"

12. "Substitute"

13. "I Can See For Miles" 

14. "The Seeker"

15. "Won't Get Fooled Again"

16. "Behind Blue Eyes"

17. "Ball and Chain"

18. "The Real Me"

19. "I'm One"

20. "5:15"

21. "The Rock"

22. "Love, Reign O'er Me"

23. "Baba O'Riley"

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Contact Piet at (414) 223-5162 or Follow him on Twitter at @pietlevy or Facebook at

Piet also talks concerts, local music and more on "TAP'd In" with Jordan Lee. Hear it at 8 a.m. Thursdays on WYMS-FM (88.9), or wherever you get your podcasts.

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