LENOX, Mass. — More than most rock bands, The Who often reached for large, grandiose sounds – big chords, big drums, big vocals. A full listen to The Who’s “Quadrophenia” makes this apparent. Adding an orchestra and choir to extend the reach of this record seems to make sense.
Saturday night at Tanglewood, Keith Lockhart and The Boston Pops, with opera star Alfie Boe out front singing, performed the album from start to finish to start their string of only four stops in the United States.
There were many big moments and awesome symphonic swells. There were also light, uninspiring spots to move the plot forward of this masterpiece record.
The instrumental-only pieces of the show, like “The Rock,” were always intense, and teased out hidden melodies that opened the already-expansive pieces into even larger concepts. The Pops’ ability for subtlety and detail, given the range of their sound, immediately shed new light on the title track early in the show, and often through the night.
For those of us who thought Roger Daltry was a powerful singer, Boe, former lead in “Les Miserables,” brought a new, astounding level of vocal power to the songs. It was thrilling to hear him sustain the word “love” during the crescendo of “Reign O’er Me.”
When Boe initially came out to sing “The Real Me,” he was pumped up, jumping around the stage, raising his fist, even dropping to his knees. He relished his rock-star role and was received with equal excitement. Lockhart, hearing the commotion behind him, occasionally turned to see Boe, smiling with amusement at the sight of the prestigious tenor with his hands above him encouraging the audience to clap to the beat.
However great he was, and he was great, the unexpected twist of the night was the Broadway component that came with Boe. He turned the record into a collection of show tunes. And while he did a fantastic job, and worked nicely with the orchestra, this approach required an adjustment for The Who fans, an older group that still cherishes hard-driving rock (ACDC was the pre-game choice for one parking lot party group). Who guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend was aware of this when he chose Boe.
Townshend came out for a few, playing acoustic for songs like “I’m One.” There was a lot to visually take in when this happened — Townshend, Boe, Lockhart, choir, symphony and more. For the most part, the sound came together when necessary.
Townshend, like Boe, was enjoying himself, dancing along with the singer, holding him while singing at him, swaying together, and kissing him on the forehead before leaving the stage. He was visibly proud of what he was presenting. While the audience would have wanted more of Townshend, he basically wrote himself out of the production.
It was hard to take your eyes off the theatrical Boe, always on the move, always surprising with his booming vocal, or bending to a knee for lines like, “Is it me, for a moment” during “Doctor Jimmy.” During “Dirty Jobs,” while waiting for the verse to come around, he started running in place, unable to control his excitement.
Like all early Who music, Keith Moon’s drumming plays a large, relentless presence. While Saturday night gave us occasional large cymbal crashes, snare drum rolls and thrumming tympani, percussion was not inherent in the arrangements. Similarly, the arrangements could have given a nod to John Entwistle’s aggressive bass playing — for example, you can’t hear “The Real Me” without hearing the dominant bass and drums.
British rocker Billy Idol — yes, the one who sang “White Wedding” — came on and off the stage all night, singing with Boe songs like “Cut My Hair.” Townshend and Idol sounded good, still strong singers, but paled against Boe’s giant vocal presence.
Stepping back, the entire night was a privilege that earned the numerous standing ovations from those sitting in the shed. It’s a large testament to this region that it is one of the four stops for this show — next is New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, then Chicago and Los Angeles.