More than any other band, The Who soundtracked my 1970s adolescence. So I had profoundly mixed feelings about the band’s career after the death of one-of-a-kind drummer Keith Moon in 1978. But the Face Dances album had vital, if weirdly shiny, music on it, and between that and a very loud concert I attended shortly thereafter, I saw there was life in the old boys yet.
Soldiering on without bassist John Entwistle, who died in 2002, was another thing. With only half the band left, was it still The Who? Entwistle had been just as unique a musician as Moon, though his eerily quiet onstage persona made him less notorious.
Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey took the stage at the 2004 Isle of Wight Festival to show us what they still had, and a new box set brings us the concert on two CDs and one DVD, a package entitled Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 2004. CD 1 opens with an energetic visit to three of the band’s compact pop hits of the 1960s, with “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” – probably the silliest of these nuggets – getting a psychedelic jam that adds cultural and temporal dimension and feeds nicely into the titanic hits of the ’70s – which were, of course, also on the set list.
“Who Are You” and “Baba O’Riley” are both on CD 1, the latter as cataclysmic as ever except that it’s lacking the famous harmonica solo in the final rave-up (Daltrey picked up the wrong harp). Also on the disc is is a deeply emotional performance of Townsend’s masterpiece “Behind Blue Eyes,” with sloppy-delicious harmony vocals. The whole set has a good share, if not the full original measure, of The Who’s original magic formula, part brilliant songwriting, part smash-’em-up chaos.
A batch of songs from Quadrophenia wraps up with, of course, “Love Reign O’er Me,” a full-tilt slam of emotion that brought a tear to my eye. The slow tempo gives bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Zak Starkey room to display their expansive talents. Maybe this is just the bass player in me, but at times I wished the bass had been mixed higher. Yet of course, it’s Townsend’s guitar more than any other element that defines The Who’s sound.
Daltrey’s voice, never a thing of beauty, has lost some of the youthful defiance it once had, but he hits the notes and his heart sure seems to be in it, as his keening on “Love Reign O’er Me” makes perfectly clear. Meanwhile Townsend – granted, with support from backing musicians who weren’t there in the early days – hasn’t lost an erg of energy or rhythmic creativity on either electric or acoustic guitar, remaining the greatest rhythm-guitar soloist who ever graced rock music. He gives his all vocally too; I’ve never especially liked “Eminence Front,” but here passions drips from every note he sings and every chord he plays. Then he accompanies himself on acoustic guitar in a solo performance of “Drowned” from Quadrophenia to close CD 1, turning the relatively slight song into a massive folk-rock plea for relief: “let me get back to the ocean” – and something of an acoustic rhythm guitar clinic.
After Daltrey and Townsend both play acoustic guitar dueting on the old chestnut “Naked Eye” to open CD 2, the set rocks on through a powerful performance of what was at the time one of the few new Who songs, “Real Good Looking Boy,” followed by a fully charged version of the theatrical-pop gem “You Better You Bet.” Daltrey sounds fully warmed up here, as well as on the rebellion anthem “My Generation.”
“Won’t Get Fooled Again,” a sequence from Tommy, and an encore, “Magic Bus,” fill out the second half of CD 2. “Magic Bus” was never really a song, pretty much just an extended one-chord jam on a modified Bo Diddley beat. Here it’s an 11-minute celebration of rhythm, Starkey’s arms and Palladino’s fingers flying everywhere, Daltrey with the right harmonica, and a closing spiel of blues riffage evoking the roots of rock music.
The DVD has all the tracks from the two CDs, 132 minutes in all, available in Dolby Digital Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS Surround Sound, with no extras. The sound quality is high and up-front (though I wouldn’t have minded more bass), the video well shot and edited with both sensitivity to the musical content and an excess of energy that’s just right for the high-powered performance. (The credits list no fewer than 12 camera operators.) Townsend windmills his arm and strums like a banshee, Daltrey swings his mic around like a cowboy with a lariat, Starkey ferociously attacks the drums (listen to him on “5:15”). Sadly missing, I felt from time to time, are the close-ups of Entwistle’s straight-backed, dignified presence and, especially, his flying fingers, that I was accustomed to seeing in Who footage.
Pete Townsend is as larger-than-life as ever, though, his guitar prowess honed to a deadly-sharp edge. The audio and video both capture this in loving detail. Yet when he whispers (shouts?) into Daltrey’s ear at the beginning of the “Baba O’Riley” rave-up that the singer is blowing into the wrong harmonica, it’s a reminder that no matter how huge you’ve been, how long you’ve plied the trade of rock ‘n’ roll, and how great the musicianship on stage, you’re still a bunch of all-too-fallible human beings. The little smile the guitarist and songwriter gives his longtime bandmate during their dual-acoustic “Naked Eye” carries the spark of The Who in a flash, no matter that just two original members remain.