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Growing Older Gracefully
on 11 November 2005
Finally The Who and their management have used a bit of imagination and put together a really good package. The LA Tommy show and greatest hits encore (previously issued on VHS) captures a particularly interesting incarnation of the band. The emphasis is on doing the music justice and the backing musicians supply the brass parts and extra backing vocals that bring Tommy to life. Townshend is subdued, but Daltrey and Entwistle more than compensate and it would be fair to say that Simon Phillips on drums pushes all of them to perform well, though at times his virtuosity overshadows the band.
However, the excitement of the old raw and ragged Who is long gone, but the music stands the test of time without it and seems to benefit from a more mature approach. This is all about precision and professionalism rather than the old power and bravado with which they used to carry the day. The guest stars are entertaining, but a bit of a distraction. (I would recommend buying the Join Together CD set from the same tour which includes Tommy in its entirety sung by the Who without the guests.)
The Quadrophenia show is superb. When originally tested in the 1970s the material from this album never worked on stage due to its complexity and reliance on backing tapes. Here in 1996/97 the Who finally perform this piece and do it justice. Again a team of backing musicians recreate some of the key overdubs on the album and, for my money I actually prefer the sound of much of this performance to the original record, which always suffered from poor production, eg with vocals lost in the mix etc. The visual narrative projected above the stage fits perfectly with the music and seemed at the time to herald a new 'rock theatre' approach to stadium tours. It's a pity that the Who didn't capitalise on this approach after the Quadrophenia tour, as they really seemed to have hit on an exciting new format.
In terms of performance the show rocks harder than the 1989 tour. Zak Starkey's drumming style complements the band and gives it room to breathe. This, combined with Simon Townshend's guitar playing, really seemed to galvanise the band members and put new life into the show. It is great to see John Entwistle showcasing his extraordinary bass playing techniques during 5:15. That along with his free flowing lines in many of the songs show just how indespensible he was to creating the sound of The Who. When Townshend was in mid air it was always Entwistle who would be busy pushing that treble and distorted sound through to drive the band. Ironically, most people put that sound down to Townshend.
Lastly, bonus features are normally a 'watch it once only' thing. However, the visual commentaries on both concerts are excellent and allow the viewer to opt in and out at any time to watch Townshend and Daltrey being interviewed against a backdrop of the shows. It's odd how time has changed them. Townshend says less, but more of it's worth listening to, whilst Daltrey has gone from being inarticulate to expressing himself clearly and saying a lot that's worth hearing. Both clearly have a love and respect for one another and the music that they perform and the fact that they finally managed to collaborate creatively for the first time(on the visual narrative for Quadrophenia)shows that they have the potential to produce somethng jointly.
In the absence of good new material, thoughtful presentation of their past can only help restore some of the reputation lost through myriad cynical greatest hits packages and tours. However, as Daltrey notes, the key ingredient of the band's success was Townshend's songwriting. Sadly there is currently no sign of it living up to past glories, but as these 'comeback shows' testify you can always rely on the Who for a surprise or two.
So, I recommend that you buy this DVD set. Enjoy hearing the classic old songs from the late 60s and early 70s. Don't expect Live at Leeds with visuals, but be prepared to hear some of the most complex stage performances that the band have ever managed.