Ever since he was a young man, Judge Adam Arseneau ate the silver ball.
Our review of The Who: Live At The Isle Of Wight 1970, published September 20th, 2004, is also available.
Newly restored film & remixed audio bring 1970 to today!
The Isle Of Wight Festival, Britain's answer to the call that was Woodstock crammed six hundred thousand screaming fans into an impossibly small, remote location and threw rock and roll at them until the wee hours of the morning. Taking the stage at 2 a.m. on August 30th, 1970, The Who (Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Keith Moon, Pete Townshend) took the stage and delivered one of the most memorable performances of their career. Already released as a standalone live CD and DVD, The Who: Live At The Isle Of Wight Festival 1970 (Blu-Ray) makes its high-definition debut. Is it worth the upgrade?
A diehard Who fan I'm not; I'm more Doctor Who then The Who, if you get my meaning, but even an un-rock-ucated fellow as myself can recognize a stellar concert performance. This may not be the best performance recorded of The Who in concert, but even the staunchest of critics would be hard-pressed to find too much fault in it. Raucous and energetic, the band crank out a solid mix of classic songs and covers before rolling into a nonstop, unbroken (slightly abridged) performance of Tommy to close out the set:
• "Heaven and Hell"
Assembled by award-winning filmmaker Murray Lerner, the performance was originally collected for a documentary on the festival itself, but the recording of The Who proved so popular with fans that it was cut into its own feature. Despite a twelve-strong camera crew spaced across the stage and audience to capture the band, the assembled concert is surprisingly amateurish in terms of its composition and camera angles—shaky handheld cameras, claustrophobic camera angles, crowd shots that fail to capture the massive scope of the audiences. Other troubling details, like the opening performance of "Heaven and Hell" song by bassist John Entwistle, where we rarely get a shot of him actually singing it, add a certain charm and quirk to the performance, but that's me being generous. It is an imperfect recording of an imperfect performance, marred by technical glitches, bad weather, surly dispositions, and sour notes. Somehow, amazingly, The Who still churn out an amazing, awe-inspiring performance and this is no doubt why fans have a special place in their heart for this concert. For all its foibles, this is The Who, captured in all their discordant glory.
If you haven't seen this performance before, and are looking for a more intimate and detailed take, I urge you to read Judge Bill Gibron's meticulously written and verbose review discussing the standard definition release, The Who: Live At The Isle Of Wight Festival 1970. As a writer—even a lazy writer—I can admit when I've been beat. His knowledge of the band and the intricacies of the performance far outweigh my own. We will focus instead on exactly why people will be curious about reading this review: Is it worth the upgrade onto Blu-Ray?
This is a tricky Blu-Ray to evaluate on the merits of its visuals, simply because the source material is so sketchy. Recorded haphazardly by handheld camera operators in the rain using 16mm film at night, this is hardly an ideal medium to make a high definition Blu-Ray disc from. To their credit, Eagle Rock gives it the old college try, with albeit mixed results. Print damage is minimal and the transfer is relatively clean, evidence of the source material definitely seeing some restoration work. We get the concert in a 1080p presentation; black levels are nowhere near modern HD standards, but still surprisingly deep for a film this aged. Detail is soft and unfocused as the cameras constantly shift, undulate, and cut from shot to shot, rarely standing still for more than five seconds at a time. When we do get shots of the band, they are often out of focus and saturated by extreme lighting and dark backgrounds, and shadows are murky and indistinct. By modern standards, this is pretty rough. Don't expect a miracle upgrade here. After all, a Blu-Ray is only as good as its source material.
Audio sees the jump to DTS HD Master Audio, and this is definitely worth the price of admission, expanding the range of the performance immeasurably. Keith Moon's drumming pounds from all channels in a flurry of sticks, and John Entwistle's spastic baselines pound from the low end. Bass response is warm and forceful, with a solid low end that sounds natural. Guitars are crisp and articulated through the medium and high ranges without becoming piercing. It's an old performance, one not recorded under ideal conditions, but it is powerful all the same and captured beautifully by this presentation. The concert itself may have been recorded under less-than-perfect conditions, but the meticulous remixing has created an impressive sonic performance all the same. Crank the volume and experience the full blast of The Who—it's worth it. We also get the obligatory legacy presentations, Dolby Digital 5.1 (which sounds weak and timid compared to its high-definition counterpart) and a LPCM stereo track.
Extras include two bonus tracks (more on this later) and a forty minute interview with guitarist Pete Townshend discussing his performance and his time in The Who during the 1970s. Surly, acerbic and cantankerous, Townshend is a frustratingly irritating interviewee, alternating between callous condemnations of his performance at the Isle of Wight, his band mates, his record label, the audience et al, and expressing a childish glee in being such an awesome old rock and roller. It is nearly impossible to tell when (if at all) he is taking the piss, but it's a nice accompaniment to the set. This supplement is identical to the standard DVD release.
So why upgrade? Admittedly, the 1080p transfer is underwhelming. Judged based on the visuals alone, I would say save your money and stick to standard DVD. However, this Blu-Ray does offer a few notable improvements over previous DVD releases worth discussing. Blu-Ray offers some serious improvements for audiophiles, and an opportunity to experience this concert in glorious, uncompressed master audio is not to be taken lightly, assuming that you have the gear for it. The difference between the DTS HD master audio track and the 5.1 Dolby is marked and noticeable, with warmer tones, sparkling highs and sublime lows. Fans will no doubt want to hear this performance as good as it can get. Secondly, this Blu-Ray contains two bonus tracks not included in the standard release—"Substitute" and "Naked Eye"—offering a more complete Isle of Wight concert experience than previously available.
A recording this old will not dazzle your new widescreen television, but true fans of The Who will willingly throw down to hear this seminal concert performance in a master audio format. This is far and away the biggest selling point of this title. Once you get a taste for the subtle-yet-expansive increases in fidelity between compressed and uncompressed audio formats, it's tough to go back. If you've got the money, this court can forgive the occasional Blu-Ray double dip, especially when it sounds this good.
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• Bonus Tracks
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