A Night at the Rock Opera

L ong live rock, indeed. While Tommy, the 1969 album by The Who, may not be the first ‘rock opera.’ it is undoubtedly the best-known example of that peculiar hybrid, and its far-reaching influence is still being felt decades later. Melding guitarist and chief songwriter Pete Townshend’s psychedelic concepts and evocative lyrics with great performances […]

Jeans ‘n Classics brings Tommy
to life at Schuster

The Jeans ‘N Classics band adds their rock chops to the DPO’s orchestral majesty.

By Tim Walker

Long live rock, indeed.

While Tommy, the 1969 album by The Who, may not be the first ‘rock opera.’ it is undoubtedly the best-known example of that peculiar hybrid, and its far-reaching influence is still being felt decades later. Melding guitarist and chief songwriter Pete Townshend’s psychedelic concepts and evocative lyrics with great performances from the rest of The Who—singer Roger Daltrey, bassist John Entwistle, and drummer Keith Moon—Tommy remains one of rock music’s crowning artistic achievements nearly 50 years after its initial release. The original double album was subsequently transformed into a 1975 film directed by Ken Russell and later a Broadway musical and is filled with memorable songs such as “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” and “See Me, Feel Me.”

This week, as the grand finale for its 2017–2018 Rockin’ Orchestra series, the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra proudly presents a one-evening-only performance of The Who’s rock opera Tommy live at the Schuster Center on Saturday, May 12. The concert starts at 8 p.m., and the DPO will be led by conductor Patrick Reynolds for the evening’s performance. Jeans ‘N Classics, the rock ensemble who has joined forces with the orchestra for several previous concerts, will also be on hand with several vocalists to help bring Tommy to life onstage. The Rockin’ Orchestra series, sponsored each year by Dayton Freight, remains one of the DPO’s most popular annual series—other concerts in this past season’s lineup included tributes to Led Zeppelin, U2, Elton John,
and David Bowie.

Tommy, The Who’s breakthrough fourth album, was penned nearly single-handedly by Townshend and details in a song cycle the story of a young man named Tommy, the “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” who “sure plays a mean pinball,” as the hit single goes. Told briefly, the rock opera begins with Captain Walker of the British army going missing. His son Tommy is subsequently born to Walker’s wife, who assumes she is now a widow. However, 5 years later the Captain returns and, finding his wife with a new mate, murders the suitor in front of the boy, causing Tommy to lose his sight, hearing, and speech in a fit of psychosomatic shock. (In the film version, the lover kills Captain Walker.) The boy’s focus then turns inward, and various things happen to him—his parents fret over his lack of religion, and he’s given LSD by the “Acid Queen” (Tina Turner memorably played the role in the 1975 film version). Tommy is physically abused and then molested by relatives, he learns to play pinball, regains his senses, and becomes a Christ-like messiah figure with his own cult following before eventually turning inward again. Townshend later said that Tommy was heavily influenced by Indian spiritual master Meher Baba, whose teachings he was studying at the time.

“The first time I really listened to The Who was the Tommy album,” says Paul “Paulie” Brigitzer, regional IT director for iHeartMedia and on-air personality at Dayton rock radio station 104.7 WTUE. “I played drums and a friend told me I was not a drummer until I could play like Keith Moon, and put ‘Sparks’ on the stereo. I was hooked from there on. Besides Keith’s unique drums, John’s masterful busy bass lines, Pete’s guitar and writing and Roger’s blasting vocals. One of my favorite of all the Who LPs… yes, I said LPs… in my collection.”

Rock ensemble Jeans ‘N Classics has been performing for over 23 years, and has worked with over 100 orchestras in venues throughout North America. The rock band, founded and led by arranger and lead guitarist Peter Brennan, will be performing Tommy onstage along with the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, providing all of the rocking Who music to the accompaniment of Dayton’s finest classically-trained musicians and conductor Patrick Reynolds. Vocalists for the evening’s concert will include David Blamires, Andrea Koziol, Stephanie Martin, and Kathryn Rose. Brennan, who was born in England and moved to Canada as a child, has had a long career in the music industry; he toured extensively throughout North America as a musician in the 1970s and 80s, and says that he has always had a love for the combined sound of orchestras and rock and roll music.

“We’re really excited to play it,” says Peter Brennan from his home in Canada, when asked about Tommy recently. “Every time we play it, everybody gets really musically pumped, because you feel like you’re really doing something special. There are three female vocalists in the show, and [Andrea Koziol] just tears the roof off on the song ‘Acid Queen.’”

“There’s so many variations,” he continues. “There’s The Who’s original album, and then the film, and various other productions, like the London cast and the New York cast and all the others. So I guess our production is a bit of a hybrid of all that. We’ve tried to keep the bits of brilliance as much as we can, in the sense that there was so much great thematic writing in it—it was so cleverly done. These reoccurring themes, these reworked chord progressions that keep coming back in, musically speaking, are just so cool. And so recognizable—everyone knows them. So of course you get the biggies, like the ‘Pinball’ theme, and the ‘See Me, Feel Me’ theme, and there’s a couple of others like the ‘I’m Free’ theme, and if you took them all away from the context for a minute they’re still just so recognizable. To me, that was the basis to go on. So we kept all of the pieces that kind of incorporate The Who’s hooks, for lack of a better term, and then we went after the bits that told the story. The story, admittedly, is a bit of a
convoluted thing.”

The musician pauses in thought, then continues. “It’s really neat stuff to play. Tommy lends itself so nicely to the orchestra. The Dayton Philharmonic will eat it for breakfast,” he says with a laugh.

In addition to the orchestra, conductor, a rock band, and three talented female vocalists on the crowded Schuster Center stage, the Tommy performance will also feature the vocal expertise of lifelong musician, composer, and admitted Who fanatic David Blamires. Another English-born musician who was raised in Canada—although he’s been based in Chicago for over 20 years now—the well-traveled Blamires was the lead vocalist for the Pat Metheny Group from 1986 to 1997 and has been performing with Peter Brennan and Jeans ‘N Classics for over 8 years now. “Dayton? I was just in Dayton,” he says with a laugh. “I did a show called ‘Notes From the Brill’ with Jeans ‘N Classics and the Dayton Philharmonic back in February—it was all about the music of Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Neil Sedaka, Laura Nyro. It was great. There were five singers, and we all did solo numbers and harmonies, and it was really a blast. I’ve played in Dayton four or five times now. I love it there.”

When asked about the upcoming Tommy performance, Blamires loses none of his enthusiasm. “It’s really kind of a hybrid concept…a lot of the arrangements and the voice casting are from the Broadway musical, not the original Who album. But Tommy is one of my top five favorite albums of all time—I just love this music so much. So the makeup of the singers are me—I’m the only male—and then there are three very nice, attractive, and very talented ladies who are up there with me. Like, for example, we do the song ‘Acid Queen,’ which on the original album was sung by Pete Townshend, But when they did the movie version it was done by Tina Turner. So my colleague Andrea Koziol, who is going to be up there with us, she sings that—and let me tell you, she peels the paint off the walls with that one. She’s awesome.”

“What’s really great about it,” he continues. “Is that the original album had—there was no orchestra on the Who album. It wasn’t really orchestral. So when you hear this music with the Dayton Philharmonic, it’s just so great. I love The Who in general. I was a kid in England in the late 60s, and I remember them being on the radio. Then, of course, when I was a young teenager, I became just kind of a fanatic—the two bands I was obsessed with were Led Zeppelin and The Who. So I just love all this music so much—and Tommy, in particular, I remember, when I was about 13 or 14 and living in this little town of London, Ontario—where Jeans ‘N Classics is based, actually—and this little record store called Sam the Record Man, they did this bargain thing where they’d sell a double album for five bucks. And I remember going down and buying Tommy. I knew ‘Pinball Wizard, of course, but I didn’t know the whole album. And I literally wore that thing out, I played it for weeks and weeks and weeks. So that music really resonates with me. It’s so great and creative and majestic and rich.”

I ask the singer if, when he’s performing the songs onstage, he’s mimicking Roger Daltrey in the back of his head, and his answer is immediate. “One hundred percent!” he laughs. “I don’t even have to think about that question. I’m a rock and roll singer, so I’m not thinking theatrically at all when I’m up there. I mean sure, parts of the show are innately theatrical, but…what I’m thinking is total Roger Daltrey or Pete Townshend. Townshend has such a beautiful voice… I don’t know if you know the song ‘Sensation,’ but it’s so beautiful. Almost angelic. When I’m up there singing my parts, I’m definitely trying to channel Daltrey and Townshend.”

Blamires and Brennan, along with the rest of Jeans ‘N Classics, the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, and conductor Patrick Reynolds, will all be focused on channeling the majesty and beauty of The Who’s seminal rock opera Tommy for the Schuster Center audience this coming Saturday night. And this is one astral musical trip that you definitely don’t want to miss.

Just take it from the Acid Queen.

The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Patrick Reynolds and performing with Jeans ‘N Classics, presents The Who’s rock opera Tommy on Saturday, May 12 at the Schuster Center downtown. The performance starts at 8 p.m., and good seats are still available. For more information, visit www.daytonperformingarts.org
or call 937-224-3521.

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Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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