SAN FRANCISCO — The Who have never shied away from making big statements, achieving mega-stardom in time for Woodstock with the bold rock opera Tommy. From that point on, the conceptual aspirations of guitarist and primary songwriter Pete Townshend were buoyed by the musicianship of a band that at times exuded strength, abandon, tenderness and profundity. This virile recipe came to define the band. While confined to the standard rock format of bass-drums-vocals-guitar, The Who’s music nevertheless seemed to hint at something more transcendent and searching. Wednesday, as part of their Moving On! Tour, England’s inimitable mod-ruffians-turned-arena-rockers melded ambition and panache at Chase Center with a symphonic synopsis of their bright career.
The band was accompanied by a 51-member orchestra conducted by Keith Levenson (who’s worked with the Boston Pops, among many others). The orchestra encircled the band and brought new layers of texture to familiar songs. “Overture” kicked off the show with a processional air and enhanced sense of drama. More highlights from Tommy followed. Frontman Roger Daltrey, recovering from bronchitis, at first appeared to be holding back a bit as though he was rationing his firepower for the duration of the 22-song set. He had been unable to finish a concert in Houston and the band postponed two others leading up to the San Francisco performance.
On “Amazing Journey,” Townshend and Daltrey, the two remaining original members of The Who, generated a spark of excitement with their signature moves. Townshend struck his guitar strings in windmill fashion, while the 75-year-old Daltrey gyrated with alacrity and swung his microphone on its cord like a bull rider with a lasso. The band ran through the instantly recognizable “Pinball Wizard,” and Townshend raked gruff chords and glorious sustain from his gold Stratocaster. “We’re Not Gonna Take It” followed, as Daltrey put the full force of his voice behind the emotional crux of Tommy, uttering, “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me.”
The band charged through the first half of its set with energy and agility. Daltrey seemed fully recovered from his illness. Townshend whirled and dashed, engaging his bandmates. He spoke good-naturedly to recognize John Lennon’s birthday and to poke fun at his and Daltry’s advanced ages. A textured drapery hung behind the large ensemble. Percussion players occupied a riser behind longtime drummer Zak Starkey. Flanking the percussionists were two additional platforms with the woodwind and brass sections. The string section was spread to both sides.
After playing a few deeper cuts the orchestra retired to the wings for several songs that the band performed by itself. The Townshend-sung “Eminence Front,” from 1982’s It’s Hard, was a crowd pleaser with a tough, fibrous backbeat. Townshend introduced 1975’s “Imagine A Man” with an appeal to millennials, wishing them the opportunity to “have a laugh someday.” The song made its live debut on the Moving On! Tour.
This was followed by new tune “Hero Ground Zero,” from the forthcoming album Who; an optimistic and devotional “You Better You Bet,” and the first appearance of songs from The Who’s landmark album, Who’s Next.
In what at first seemed an odd choice, Daltrey and Townshend performed the usually raucous “Won’t Get Fooled Again” as a duet. Townshend donned an ornate Gibson acoustic guitar and played open chords high on the neck as Daltrey belted out the anthemic chorus. Townshend added an adroit finger-picking passage before ending the powerful rendition with a manual delay effect on the final chord. The duo was then joined by violin and cello for an eerily pretty “Behind Blue Eyes” while the orchestra filed in and reassembled itself around the band.
The final phase of the concert began with selections from double-album Quadrophenia. Townshend’s younger brother Simon presented some fine leads on a red Gibson SG guitar. Epic number “The Rock” benefited most from the symphonic treatment, with horns making a grand entrance and added nuance emerging from the fuller arrangement. Highlight “Love, Reign O’er Me” was introduced by an impressive baroque piano interlude performed by touring keyboardist Loren Gold. Daltrey seemed only to get stronger as the set progressed. His performance culminated in raw inflections that recalled his younger self, tinged with a tad more anguish and evocative pitch-bending.
Before bidding farewell, Townshend returned to the microphone to introduce the band and orchestra players. Always charismatic in his public addresses, he took a moment to praise his long-time compatriot, Daltrey. He then asked the crowd to remember that Daltrey is “even older than I am.” Daltrey returned the commendation. The band, before allowing the proceedings to get sappy, closed with the unmitigated classic “Baba O’Riley” as Daltrey incited fans to sing along.
Oasis’ Liam Gallagher opened the show in support of his latest album, Why Me? Why Not. He brought his flavor of defiant Mancunian charm, clad in a black parka. Gallagher opened with Oasis tune “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” before drawing the rest of his set mostly from his two solo albums.
Single “Once” was received warmly for its reflective lyrics and catchy melodies. Gallagher dedicated the song to John Lennon, for whom the Beatle was a particular inspiration. His commitment to the institution of rock was evident not only in his lyrics and pedigree, but also in the black stenciled block letters spelling “ROCK ‘N’ ROLL” on the back of a white piano facing the audience. One of Gallagher’s other key allegiances, to Manchester City Football Club, was recognized on the screen of the bass speaker cabinet, under a substantial Fender Bassman head.
A brief set of six songs continued with the rollicking “The River,” which was a return to the churning hard rock sound that characterized most of his set. Long-time band member Jay Mehler drew intelligible but scuzzy guitar tones that meshed with the overall sound and formed a seamless backdrop to Gallagher’s sneering vocals.
Ending with an abbreviated version of Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova,” Gallagher came across as confident while also possessing an appreciable sense of humility. He worked the crowd with brash statements bur also warmly venerated The Who.