It was a downright regal entrance. A blasting horn section, tucked neatly in the back corner of the full bandstand, informally announced the proceedings. Sitting at the ready, the gallant fleet of string players across the stage would later begin to sing as Roger Daltrey casually smacked a pair of tambourines beside his longtime bandmate Pete Townshend, who stood front and center in front of a ruffled curtain.
Perched off to the side, his back to the T-Mobile Park crowd Saturday night, conductor Keith Levenson sharply waved his arms, looking like the only one on stage likely to break a sweat by the end of a cinematic “Overture.”
By the time the 48-piece local orchestra backing classic rock giants The Who hit the squalling crescendo on “The Real Me” later, sending our section’s resident air guitarist into a windmilling frenzy a la Townshend, there was only one lingering question: Why the hell didn’t these guys score “Star Wars”?
It was an ambitious move for the band now in the twilight of its career, building a show around its two most ambitious records — double-album rock operas “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” — backed by a different local orchestra every night of its Moving On! tour in the U.S. The Seattle cast was made up of local musicians who play with the 5th Avenue Theatre, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle Opera and Seattle Symphony, the latter hailed by Townshend as “one of the most adventurous, audacious orchestras” around.
The hired symphonic muscle — who would be joined by another Seattle heavyweight later on — helped some of The Who’s most progressive songs ascend to new altitudes. With the 75-year-old Daltrey tossing and twirling his mic around like a yo-yoing recess showboat during “1921,” Townshend stormed in with a Hendrix-indebted solo before the booming string section took over. The 140-minute set was split into three sections: the first anchored by a “Tommy” suite, a band-only middle portion sans orchestra and a closing section heavy on “Quadrophenia” songs where the orchestra felt truly unleashed. Townshend’s emotive shredding on monstrous instrumental “The Rock” (an unexpected highlight) was made all the more poignant with intermittent strings slicing behind him.
The sonic pomp was fit for a queen, albeit one who cusses like a sailor (looking at you, Pete) and practically invented the trashed hotel room (R.I.P. Keith Moon). Before launching into a second act that featured a jumping and jolting “You Better You Bet” and an acoustic “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” Townshend flashed his playfully grouchy sense of humor, having some fun at his own and Daltrey’s expense. “This is a traveling nursing home for two old farts,” the 74-year-old said of the tour during the portion of his self-ribbing that doesn’t require a radio edit. Earlier he quipped that the band’s new album, “Who,” (now arriving Dec. 6) keeps getting delayed so people in their 20s can buy it for their grandfathers for Christmas.
For all the talk of Daltrey’s voice showing its age, the 75-year-old frontman sounded great for most of the night, even growing stronger as the show went on. It was especially impressive considering a month ago, the band cut short a Houston show after his voice gave out, resulting in the postponement of several other dates. Shifting into a muscle-flexing higher octave on the potent and penultimate “Love, Reign O’er Me,” Daltrey howled and shrieked toward the retractable roof — which was closed on a chilly fall night — with the orchestra thundering beneath him.
Earlier, Townshend commented on the closed-roof’s echo, though it didn’t hamper The Who’s set as much as it did opener Liam Gallagher’s. Riding high in the mix (as if he’d have them any other way), Gallagher’s sharp and nasally vocals weathered the cavernous acoustics, as he drew from his strong new solo album “Why Me? Why Not” before closing with Oasis classics “Wonderwall” and a resplendent “Champagne Supernova.”
As much credit as the orchestra deserves, the four dozen or so players and the irascible prince of Britpop Gallagher weren’t even the most memorable guests of the night (through no fault of their own). Making a not-so-surprising “surprise” appearance, noted Who fan and friend Eddie Vedder joined the band for a punchy spin through “The Punk and the Godfather,” as he did during a Wembley Stadium gig this summer. Rocking a Union Jack blazer, Vedder traded vocals with Daltrey and Townshend, his signature quivering vibrato shooting through the ballpark’s cold air like a fastball with movement, the light-by-stadium-standards crowd going wild for the hometown star’s cameo.
With the stage moved in closer around second base, the smaller configuration made the stadium feel a little more intimate than when Vedder and Pearl Jam took over the Mariners’ home for two nights last year.
Already among the upper echelon of epic rock songs without an orchestral army, a closing “Baba O’Riley” was as mighty as expected, with a barnstorming fiddle solo from violinist Katie Jacoby — one of two featured soloists traveling with the tour — that put a massive grin on Daltrey’s face. He wasn’t the only one.
Though the crowd was hungry for an encore it didn’t receive, the energy couldn’t get any higher than that on a night spent re-imagining The Who’s classic material with a little help from some of Seattle’s finest.