Saturday, March 14, 2009

Dig The Who: A Concert DVD Review

The Who: Tommy And Quadrophenia Live
Rhino // 418 Minutes // Not Rated

By Steve Evans

Intro music
Can you see the real me, can ya—can ya!?

Spin that Disc
Rhino Records unleashes a terrific three-disc set of thunderous live performances by The Who, one of the greatest — and indisputably the loudest — of rock bands. Disc One features a 1989 performance of the classic rock opera Tommy in Los Angeles. Disc Two contains the full stage performance of The Who’s second rock opera, Quadrophenia, perhaps the most impassioned and technically ambitious music the original Who lineup would record. Quadrophenia was captured live during the band's 1996/’97 U.S. tour and makes an interesting contrast with the 1979 film of the same name. Quadrophenia in its ’79 incarnation was a straightforward narrative film tricked-out with prototype rock-video techniques, using The Who’s stunning multi-channel music. But the band did not appear in the film as they do in this concert set in all their raucous glory. Disc three offers live concert footage of classic Who tracks and is, by itself, reason enough to add this boxed set to any serious collection of rock DVDs.

The Who's leader Pete Townshend had always envisioned full-blown theatrical productions of Tommy, the parable of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy turned messiah (first performed in 1969), and the anguished Quadrophenia, which would follow eight years later. Quadrophenia is the story of tormented, pill-popping Jimmy, a young Mod in 1963 London who searches for meaning in his life while his mates tangle with their rivals, the Rockers. Back in the day, The Who performed live versions of both rock operas and always managed to weave select tracks from each into their concerts, but it would take decades before the group pulled off a theatrical production in the scope that Townshend had long imagined.

Fast forward 20 years. We could speculate why it took so long for Townshend to green-light DVDs of these great performances. The live version of Tommy in this set is now more than 20 years old, while the Quadrophenia performance was recorded 13 years ago. So let's speculate: Since the turn of the millennium, Townshend has become a notorious cash-in artist. It's hard to watch a car commercial or the opening credits of C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation without hearing one of his licensed compositions. Given his track record, Townshend evidently saw an opportunity for some fast cash by dusting off valuable inventory like Quadrophenia and Tommy sitting in the video vaults (I am similarly inclined to wail on Jimmy Page for selling Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” to hawk Cadillacs a few years ago). Still, these songs belong to Townshend and he puts his name on quality product.

Fans of The Who will groove to see and hear Steve Winwood jamming with the band, or watch Billy Idol fiddle about as lecherous Cousin Kevin in Tommy. The ever-snarling Idol also appears as Ace the Face in Quadrophenia—a role originally played by a very young Sting, of Police fame, in the 1979 film. Guest musicians on Tommy include Phil Collins, Patti LaBelle, and Elton John. (Remember his show-stopping performance and incredible footwear in the 1975 Tommy, directed by Ken Russell?)

So long as we're waxing nostalgic, let's get to the real treasure in the back of this box. Disc three features 22 astounding live performances of Who classics, including “Baba O’Riley” from their masterpiece album, Who's Next, and two blistering takes on “Who Are You?” This disc also offers several pleasing surprises, including early Who songs like “Substitute,” “Boris the Spider” (after all these years I still can't decide whether it's a novelty song or jangling commentary on drug withdrawal), and the triumphant “I Can See For Miles.” Drop this disc in the tray, goose the amplifier, and let The Who whip your mind into guacamole.

This concert footage was filmed during three tours in 1989, 1996 and ’97, well before bassist John Entwistle’s cocaine-fueled death in 2002. His premature check-out didn’t stop the Who from finishing the tour that year, but it cast a permanent shadow across the group’s future. The Who's sonic fury had already been greatly diminished by the overdose death of original drummer Keith Moon in 1978. Without Entwistle, widely considered the finest bass player in all rock and roll, it seems surviving members Roger Daltrey and Townshend may be relegated to an oldies act (Townshend routinely promises another tour). No matter. The duo still manages to release excellent DVD product, of which this set is a pristine example.

Of the two rock operas, Tommy comes off the best in terms of musical execution and story. The old tropes still hold up after nearly four decades — Tommy's rise, fall, and ultimate redemption. Quadrophenia is more problematic. Townshend’s multi-layered music is more ambitious here, but the story is not as satisfying. The production relies extensively on video clips broadcast on a mammoth monitor over the stage. Jimmy pops on screen frequently to comment (in an almost unintelligible Cockney accent) on the sorry state of his life. These clips punctuate and help to underscore the music—and it’s clear what Townshend was trying to accomplish — but as an experimental narrative presentation it doesn’t really succeed. Let me be clear: Jimmy’s plight is probably universal (adolescent anguish), but he’s not a likeable character. To crib a line from Mick Jagger, it’s hard to serve a little coke and sympathy to this hostile punk wallowing in self-loathing. Jimmy just wants to let it bleed. As trenchant drama, Quadrophenia is ho-hum stuff. But the music remains an incredible listening experience — especially on headphones, where Townshend’s intricate sonic tapestry can be appreciated to maximum effect.

What Goodies Do We Get, Steve?
I'll tell ya. Disc extras include a photo gallery, short documentaries and interviews, and a wicked-cool “visual commentary” feature with Daltrey and Townshend. Check this: At select moments, the DVD will display an onscreen camera icon. Pressing the camera-angle button on the remote control will cause a short video clip of either Townshend or Daltrey to superimpose over the concert footage. During these scenes, the musicians share their thoughts on the production and offer frequently fascinating insights into the creative process.

I experienced The Who at an outdoor show in Virginia a year before Entwistle died. Ringo Starr's son Zak pounded the drums, Daltrey did his whip-the-microphone thang, and Townshend routinely launched himself into space, leaping from the tallest stack of Marshall Amplifiers I have ever seen. But it was Entwistle who made the biggest impact on me. That thunderous bass threatened to shatter my ribcage. My ears were a-ringing for three days afterward, about the same length of time a dazed expression remained plastered across my smilin' face. Their show remains the best I have seen in more than 30 years of raising hell at rock concerts.

I may have mellowed (marginally) through the years; Townshend has not. On these discs, the guitarist still comes off as a hugely arrogant SOB (the angry young man grew up to be an angry old man), but he’s also a survivor, rock visionary, virtuoso guitarist, and musical genius.

And that’s enough.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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