The first thing you need to understand about these two DVD performances is they are not exactly your typical Who concerts — at least not if your model of a live Who show is based upon the wild, chaotic performances captured on such classics as The Who Live At Leeds, (possibly the greatest live album ever made) or the DVD The Who Live At The Isle of Wight 1970 (which isn't far behind Leeds in terms of capturing one of rock's greatest live bands on a particularly hot night).
Originally released last fall as a double set and now split into two separate DVDs, these represent semi-theatrical live performances of The Who's two landmark rock operas by what can only be described as an expanded touring ensemble.
If you are looking for the windmilling, guitar-smashing Pete Townshend, you'll likely be disappointed. He rarely plays an electric guitar on either of these DVDs. Roger Daltrey's voice is strong throughout much of the Tommy performance, but is all but gone by Quadrophenia.
The good news is, once you get past the fact you can't really call this a true Who concert (and has there ever really been one since Keith Moon died anyway?), there's still much to like about both DVDs.
The two concerts here, recorded nearly ten years apart, are basically touring theatrical presentations of the rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia. Then surviving Who members Townshend, Daltrey, and bassist John Entwhistle are joined by an expanded band resembling a small orchestra, complete with strings, horns, and backup singers. There are also a number of big-name guests who turn in guest performances on several songs of each opera.
The idea appears to be one of faithfully recreating the two rock operas down to the last French horn onstage. Taken on that level, the concept works for the most part. Still, it's hard not to miss the power and chaos of a typically frenetic Who concert.
On the Tommy songs in particular, there is a decidedly watered-down feel when you have such commonly viewed reference points as Townshend's windmilling Woodstock performance to measure it against. It even takes two drummers to recreate Keith Moon's drum parts on the Tommy disc.
Still, the music is note-for-note perfect and a relatively young Townshend and Daltrey look and sound energized on this performance recorded at Los Angeles Universal Ampitheatre in 1989. There are also some good backup vocal performances from big-name guests like Elton John, Steve Winwood, and Billy Idol. Patti Labelle in particular is in top diva form during her turn as The Acid Queen, while Phil Collins is hilarious as Uncle Ernie.
For the Quadrophenia show, recorded when the Who toured the opera in 1996-97, there is a more elaborate stage presentation. Combining original film from the Quadrophenia movie with a newly filmed dramatic narrative, it has a young Alex Langdon playing the central role of Jimmy, the troubled Mod and central character. This is by far the better performance of the two. Despite the fact that The Who members are nearly ten years older — and Daltrey's voice is pretty well shot — the band sounds absolutely outstanding here.
John Entwhistle in particular here is just stunning. Of all The Who albums, Quadrophenia has always been the one where Entwhistle's bass parts were most dominant, and here he just shreds them to pieces.
The 5.1 audio mix of the DVD showcases his mastery of the four-string just beautifully, leaving you to ponder how The Who could possibly carry on without him. (The same way Who fans still wonder about Keith Moon.) Speaking of Moon, it takes only one drummer to take on that task here and Zak Starkey more than rises to the occasion.
The expanded band is also more effective here taking on Quadrophenia's more symphonic musical sweep. Instrumental passages like "The Rock" are as gorgeous and textured as they are on the original record, and Townshend even swings a few windmills during "Love Reign O'er Me." And Entwhistle's bass on tracks like "The Punk Meets The Godfather" is, as I mentioned, just amazing. Billy Idol is back here as The Ace Face for "Sea and Sand" and "Bell Boy." PJ Proby does a humorous vocal turn here as well as The Godfather of the storyline's Rockers.
Although Roger Daltrey strains noticeably hard to hit those high notes, the music is so strong here it more than covers for the vocal flaws. The Quadrophenia story of a troubled Mod growing up in swinging sixties London is also told more coherently here than it has ever been.
Again the key to appreciating either of these DVDs comes by lowering typical expectations. This is not the controlled mayhem most fans associate with The Who in concert. It does, however, represent a faithful, well-executed stage recreation of two of that band's most enduring works.