As lead vocalist for formidable British rockers the Who, Roger Daltrey has visited Chicago many times to sing enduring classics like “Pinball Wizard” and “See Me, Feel Me” from the 1969 rock opera “Tommy.” However, he has never performed the material quite like he will at the Ravinia Festival on June 23 and 25, when Daltrey will play the album with his own band and an orchestra.
“This is a dream come true for me,” says Daltrey. “Adding all of the orchestration to enhance the root of the rock band is a magical experience, and ‘Tommy’ is the ideal music for the two together. After seeing a lot of grand operas, I think ‘Tommy’ is one of the best operas ever written.”
ROGER DALTREY PERFORMS THE WHO’S ‘TOMMY’
When: 8 p.m. June 23 and 25
Where: Ravinia Festival, 200 Ravinia Park Rd., Highland Park
Tickets: $49 – $140
Daltrey reports that “Tommy” has found eager support among the classically trained musicians performing at different cities, while describing other symphonic rock concerts where the strings are relegated to parts easily played on a synthesizer. “This is anything but,” he says.
“The orchestral players have been thrilled to play this. The scores are very challenging. They’re very percussive, and the voicings are extraordinary. So many of the musicians have said, ‘Thank you for giving me the opportunity to play this wonderful music.’ It must be like a breath of fresh air.”
The Who have performed “Tommy” in full, but Daltrey’s approach on this tour is distinctly different. “I play ‘Tommy’ as though the record was written by Mozart,” he says. “It’s performed as a structured piece of music that is written and respected just as we respect the great composers of the past.”
Although the Who catalog brims with classic rock favorites including “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Who Are You” and more, “Tommy” and its messianic story of a deaf, dumb and blind boy make a special connection with the audience.
“For me, Tommy has always been all of us,” says Daltrey. “You’re Tommy, I’m Tommy. The other characters are different parts of our human makeup. We all have the potential to be Uncle Ernie, or spiteful cousin Kevin. We’re all trying to get through this life the best we can. For a lot of it, we are deaf, dumb and blind. Hopefully, we end up with our eyes open.”
In addition to celebrating “Tommy,” Daltrey has new music to share. “As Long As I Have You” is the singer’s first solo album since 1992, and follows 2014’s “Going Back Home” collaboration with Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson. The new songs return Daltrey to the Who’s R&B roots with tracks like “Certified Rose” and “The Love You Save.” As a bonus for Who fans, Pete Townshend plays guitar on most of the album.
Daltrey praises his old friend. “He’s such an original player,” he says. “He can play like the Pages and the Claptons, but he will deliver you something completely unexpected. He’s totally, totally my favorite guitarist.”
The new set also includes the politically motivated “Get On Out of the Rain” and Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothing.” Wonder targeted Richard Nixon in 1974, but Daltrey’s ire is more open-ended. “It’s not directed at anyone in particular, it’s directed at the whole bloody lot of them,” he says. “I’m 74 years old, and I see the same problems now that I saw as a child. It’s basically a comment on the whole political system.
“I do think things are slowly getting better,” says Daltrey. “I’m not a pessimist at all. There’s still so much unnecessary suffering going on, but speaking generally, more people in the world are doing better today than ever before.”
Daltrey’s new album concludes with the sentimental “Always Heading Home.” For a singer remembered for the banshee howl of “Baba O’Riley,” the song joins tender tracks like “Tea and Theatre” in revealing the supple control of Daltrey’s powerful pipes. “It’s a spiritual song without being religious,” he says. “It’s about our journey and the wonder of this universe. We’re all part of it, and we can never, ever be free of it. We’re always going to be some fleck of dust floating around in it somewhere.”
Daltrey’s continued travel allows him to continue his passionate support of the Teenage Cancer Trust and its offshoot Teen Cancer America. “I’m doing as much as I can to raise awareness and funding for Teen Cancer America, because we’re desperately short of corporate sponsorship,” says Daltrey. “You’ve got enormous corporations relying on that age group for their profits. It’s time to put up, guys.”
Daltrey is philosophical about the future of the Who. Although he’d like more time at home, he sees no need to announce retirement. “The Who have by no means gone away,” he says. “Four years ago, we announced our 50th anniversary tour. I said it was the beginning of the long goodbye. We are still on that long goodbye.”
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.