Judge Bill Gibron won't get fooled again: He calls this classic concert DVD a bargain...the best he's ever had.
Our review of The Who: Live At The Isle Of Wight 1970, published February 24th, 2009, is also available.
"Listening to you I get the music.
Oddly enough, the entire enterprise was supposed to be a fundraiser for a swimming pool club. When the first bands took the stage on that late August day, 10,000 fans greeted them, each of whom had paid about $3 US for a ticket. The concert was scheduled from 8 p.m. to 10 a.m. the following day. It ended up starting late and finishing early. Still, such popular artists as the Move, Jefferson Airplane, and Tyrannosaurus Rex left an indelible mark on the crowd. By 1969, the event expanded to three days, saw 100,000 fans attend, and Bob Dylan wowed his British fans with a rousing headliner appearance. But nothing could prepare the tiny UK isle for what was about to happen. In 1970, the concept of the outdoor festival was changing. Ever since the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival—the brainchild of the Mamas and the Papas frontman John Phillips and Derek Taylor, ex-press agent for the Beatles—the hippie movement had hijacked the format, making it a part of their tribal identity. But it took 1969's Woodstock to set the benchmark for such celebrations, as the upstate New York show witnessed over half a million attendees for its three days of peace and music, becoming a symbol of the end of the '60s.
So when the Isle of Wight began its preparations, it could not have anticipated the potential turnout. Now a five-day gala, its 300-acre farm site was overrun by nearly 700,000 people, all of whom came to hear the likes of the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Procol Harum, and dozens of other major music stars. But no act during the show had the lasting power or impact of a homegrown hodgepodge of individual archetypes that made up one of the most amazing rock bands in the history of the genre. And when the Who took the stage at 2 a.m. Saturday, August 29, 1970, their performance took on a timeless quality. Finally unearthed and presented for our viewing pleasure, The Who: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 is now available on DVD. This 85-minute musical mania gives us the band's mesmerizing set at the Isle of Wight, complete with a medley of urban soul workouts and a rundown of highlights from the band's penultimate success—a little double album called Tommy.
The songs featured during the concert are:
• "Heaven and Hell": a rare John Entwistle song, found
on the 1994 release Rarities, 1966-1972.
The remaining songs were all taken from the Who's 1969 rock opera, and are performed in a single, sensational run. The selections offered in this segment are:
• "Tommy Overture"
Though the last half of the concert is as rousing as anything the Who would ever produce, either live or otherwise, the first portion of Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 seems like a cosmic warm-up for things to come. A couple of the numbers ("I Don't Even Know Myself," a low-key "Magic Bus") are the sonic equivalent of treading water, and a few of the R&B cover versions (recalling the band's early days as Mod icons) have a "going through the motions" feel. True, a group like the Who—especially in its classic configuration of Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon—could never be anything less than captivating. But without the catalog of classic songs to come ("Baba O'Reilly," "Love, Reign O'er Me," "Won't Get Fooled Again," etc.), as well as an outright avoidance of other classic signature songs ("I Can See For Miles," "The Kids Are Alright"), this performance feels like the middle section of a career symphony. It represents the moment before the Who became undeniable rock and roll gods, but has the band far enough removed from their humble roots to reject those beginnings almost outright. History has held out that Townshend and company, by 1970, were sick and tired of Tommy, fearing it was about to overwhelm them to become something in and of itself: an albatross that the musicians would never live down or up to. But when they break into "Overture" and start the audio countdown to "See Me, Feel Me / Listening to You," Live at the Isle of Wight explodes with energy and excitement.
Throughout the Tommy medley, the Who prove time and time again why they are often cited as one of the most musically inventive and fiery hard rock acts in the brief history of the medium. While the Beatles were "pop and roll" masters, crafting perfect paeans to all aspects of life, and the Rolling Stones shuffled and stuttered across the entire rhythm and blues canon, the Who—and specifically chief songwriter Pete Townshend—was immersed in the spiritual power of music. Pete has often been (mis)quoted as calling rock and roll "a religion," and one can clearly understand his sentiments watching Live at the Isle of Wight. Tommy is itself a song cycle about a reluctant messiah, and as the band plows through the brilliant samplings from the spectacle, the audience appears to link up and lock into what the tunes are "preaching." The end result is an amazing 45 minutes of pure, adrenalized musical bliss—sloppy playing and all. As a matter of fact, when watching Live at the Isle of Wight, it's interesting to note the many times when cues go amiss, clunkers crash into power chords, and the band becomes completely lost in the sonic sludge they are creating. From a pure performance standpoint, from the sonic boom blasting across the little island in the North Atlantic, Live at the Isle of Wight is a remarkable document of an equally impressive band.
But as a concert film, this movie has some major issues. First and foremost, we are dealing with mostly "sideline" and "orchestra pit" perspectives when watching the band perform. The group, along with director Murray Lerner, hired dozens of cameramen to capture the event, but all of them seem blessed with the same drug-addled idea of framing and composition. As John Entwistle starts out the show with the solid "Heaven and Hell," we get very few glimpses of him singing lead. "The Ox" is surprisingly absent throughout the majority of this concert film, and it's a shame we don't see more of him (his full-body skeleton suit is a winner!). There is also far too much audience interference in the images, especially during "Summertime Blues." A bearded, floppy-hatted fool, standing off to the side, tends to jump into frame every time Keith Moon crashes his drum kit, reenacting the monster skins moments in mime for the viewer to cringe at. His irritating pseudo-epilepsy stands out as one of several examples where the editing misdirects our attention to issues ancillary to the show. While crowd shots are nice and the amiable actions of the concertgoers in attendance here help us to understand that a good time was had by all, we want to see the Who. We want to watch the dynamic interplay between Pete's windmill strumming and Keith's rhythmic insanity. Daltrey is one of the most enigmatic front men in rock, yet all we witness are his tendencies toward microphone twirling. Maybe it was Lerner's desire to make this showcase a more "impressionistic" version of a rock and roll revue. Whatever the case may be, Live at the Isle of Wight is one of the better listening experiences in rock and roll. But it is not a very evocative film.
Eagle Vision's revamp of this long-sought-after document of the Who's historic live act is impressive for what it gets correct. Sonically, Townshend helped supervise a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound remaster that is absolutely stunning. Providing, in either standard or DTS varieties, amazing instrument separation and concert-like spatial relationships, this mix creates the feeling of being in the front row of the show, watching the band bang out its songs right in front of you. Visually, the 1.33:1 full screen image is clean and colorful, but suffers from the technological limitations of the time.
As the sole bonus feature on this disc, the 35-minute interview of Pete Townshend, conducted by Isle of Wight director Murray Lerner, is a revelation, a must for any fan of the man and his band. Townshend is a notoriously obtuse Q&A subject, and at first, he seems at odds with Lerner, calling his time in the band "Hell" and arguing that the Isle of Wight gig was horrible. But as time goes by, the enigmatic guitarist lets his guard down and begins to open up—about past comments linking rock and religion, about how the group dynamic worked (or didn't), and about the concept of a songwriter as a "commissioned" artist. Jovial, pensive, and occasionally boorish, Townshend's interview adds a fantastic supplement to the concert, and makes the DVD presentation of Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 a significant souvenir of a terrific band.
After the mammoth success of the 1970 concert, the Isle of Wight did not see another festival until 2002. And after nearly 32 years, the entertainment ideal had changed. The guest list was more diverse, with acts from around the globe being represented. In many ways, it felt like an Isle of Wight Festival in name alone. Few forgot that time when almost a million people sat in sensory overload as dozens of musicians capped the end of an era. Oddly enough, the recent concert in 2004 saw the Who return to the Isle to tear up the festival again—even if two of their founding members had long passed on. But nothing can compare to their performance on that early August morning. And The Who: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 is a terrific time capsule of that show. For you see, the new gods finally awoke that night. And they were ready to conquer.
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