In the opinion of Judge Steve Evans, half of The Who rocks harder than many new rock acts.
Out here in the fields/I've fought for my meals/I get my back into my livin'.
The Who soldier on through their 2002 North American tour, clinging to rock-god immortality in the days following the cocaine-fueled death of bassist John Entwistle.
There's no disputing the visceral thrill of a live Who concert. I caught their 2000 tour—to this day one of the greatest rock concerts I've experienced—and the thumping, fist pounding, pogo-like-a-maniac rush clung to my heart and rang in my ears for three days afterward. Guys half their age couldn't rock as hard as The Who—proof positive that when Townsend penned a bitter rant, "Hope I die before I get old," we are all the better that he didn't. Indeed, the boys apparently attacked life the way they assaulted their instruments, with fatal results. Original drummer Keith Moon was a legendary percussionist and lunatic who once nailed all of his hotel-room furniture to the ceiling during a tour. He died in 1978 from an overdose of prescription drugs. Bassist John "The Ox" Entwistle would last another 24 years before cocaine abuse worsened a heart condition that turned fatal after a night with two women in Vegas. And with that, the greatest bassist in rock history was silenced. That was the beginning of the group's 2002 tour. The aftermath is chronicled on this new disc.
Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend stomp through a set of 21 classic Who anthems (with pickup bassist Pino Palladino and Ringo Starr's son Zak on the drum kit) in the days after Entwistle died. In an interview in the special features, Townsend can scarcely contain his frustration and anger over the death of a friend he knew for more than 40 years. That rage becomes manifest during the Boston show, as Townsend attacks his guitar with a ferocity unusual even for him, while sniping and snarling both at the audience and at his sole surviving bandmate, vocalist Daltrey, who also vents his spleen with minimal provocation. Apparently, neither of these aging Mods would have it any other way. So what we have here, as subtext to a rock concert, is a deuce of aging musicians and certified hell-raisers lamenting the death of one of their own, without pausing to acknowledge that Entwistle's own hell-raising hastened his demise. A paradox?
But let's question the art, not the artists.
Performances in this concert footage range from scorching (Baba O'Riley) to vaguely desperate (My Generation). Given the pressure to carry on with the tour in the wake of Entwistle's death, the strain of trotting out the old classics may have been inevitable, and it shows. But was it avoidable? Beyond the rousing notion that the show must go on, there were certainly other factors that prompted Townsend and Daltrey to continue the 2002 tour. Like money. And audience adoration, which is like catnip to the notoriously egocentric Townsend.
As for art, the extra features on this disc include a gallery of Entwistle's sketches, caricatures, and other artistic endeavors. Nice, but it offers no real insight into the man himself, other than his droll and sarcastic nature. Stop the presses.
What's left is a passion for the music, still electrifying—and gratifyingly relevant—after 40 years. Daltrey whips his microphone. Townsend double kicks and shakes the immortal thunder out of his guitar. What's missing is the ungodly sonic boom coming off Entwistle's bass to anchor the mayhem. Bassist Palladino can strum four strings, but his notes are delicate, dainty plucks compared to Entwistle's ability to work an electric bass. Whether Palladino is buried in the audio mix, or he just can't thump a bass to Who standards, the band sounds thin and undernourished.
The show is presented in full frame; cinematography is competent, if at times too static for the energy of a Who concert. For Who completists, this is an interesting document of a classic rock band at a crossroads. But to understand what all the fuss was about, the curious need look no further than the mesmerizing 1979 documentary, The Kids are Alright. A review of the excellent double-disc set of this film is linked in the sidebar.
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• Separate interviews with Townsend and Daltrey (in anamorphic widescreen)
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