The Who should have ended — and occasionally did — many times. Keith Moon’s death. Their first farewell tour. Pete Townshend’s tinnitus. John Entwistle’s death. Roger Daltrey’s vocal cord dysplasia. Roger Daltrey’s viral meningitis. The moment the young band started smashing instruments they couldn’t afford to replace. Any of it could have been the fatal blow, and yet there they were at Fenway Park on Friday, 55 years after their first recording and less than 12 hours after announcing a new album. The Who, it seems, is destined to soldier on in one capacity or another.
In this capacity, it brought an orchestra, bolstering the decision to bookend the concert with suites from the Who’s two rock operas. Without a word of intro, the band launched into the horn-centered overture to “Tommy” and powerfully delivered the rich, sonorous finale of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” a few songs later. And the symphonic backing of “The Rock” gave new texture to the interweaving musical themes of “Quadrophenia” before the strings added sharpness and depth to “Love, Reign O’er Me.”
They also provided a quietly thrilling shadow to the synthesizer line of “Baba O’Riley” and a drone and Celtic overtones to 1975’s tender “Imagine a Man,” one of the setlist’s only real surprises. Instead, the Who previewed two songs from the upcoming record. “Hero Ground Zero” — paradoxically massive and openhearted chamber pop — didn’t leave much of a first impression. But “Ball and Chain” sounded great, the cavernous orchestra generating a slipperiness as it built walls that reached ever higher while a gruff Daltrey worked to scale them.
Throughout, the 75-year-old singer was in terrific voice, a general concern after his 2010 surgery at Mass General and a specific one after reportedly losing it during a recent Toronto concert; he returned to “Love, Reign O’er Me” with a thundering shriek following the song’s solos. And Zak Starkey shined in ways subtle and ortherwise, his drums filling the same role on “The Real Me” that Entwistle’s aggressive bass solo once did, which meant that he was doing what Moon used to do, without doing what Moon used to do.
The Who did away with the orchestra for just a handful of songs, eventually whittling down to just Townshend and Daltrey for a terrific acoustic “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” It was Townshend’s purest guitar showcase of the night, attacking his percussive chords with a deceptively light touch as Daltrey sang with less bluster and more vulnerability than the song usually carries. It was still the Who.
Wiry and squirrelly, with a voice slightly more ragged but still holding strong, J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf opened the show with a spirited set of Stonesy rock, electric blues and old-school frat-party music.
With Peter Wolf
At Fenway Park, Friday
Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spacecitymarc