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The Who Live At Leeds (1970)

FrontFrom johnmcferrinmusicreviews.org

The studio version of The Who was a great band, with good-to-great albums and great singles, but that version of the band wasn’t the whole story. The Who were a band whose live persona and sound were extremely different from their studio counterparts, and it’s just as well, because there are a lot of people (myself included) who consider The Who the greatest live rock band they’d ever heard. This album, along with Isle of Wight, is a fixture in my overall top ten, and I suspect that if the band put out any more full archive releases from around that time, they’d all get 10’s or F’s as well.

A note about the album before I proceed. There have been three different incarnations of Live at Leeds through the years. The first was a 6-track, 40-minute single LP version released back in 1970. In 1995, the band released an expanded 70+-minute, 14-track, 1-CD version, containing all of the non-Tommy material of the evening, plus a performance of Amazing Journey/Sparks. Then, in the early 2000’s, the band released the entire concert, placing all of the non-Tommy cuts on the first disc and the Tommy performance on the second. The 1995 version is the one I became acquainted with first, and it’s the one that largely converted me into a Who fan, so I (admittedly arbitrarily) am primarily considering that version in reviewing this album. Yes, this means that I’m essentially treating half of the final release as “bonus” material, but the Tommy performance doesn’t seem to have been given the same re-mastering treatment as the rest, so I don’t feel too unjustified in that.

Back to the album, the most superficial evidence that The Who live bore little resemblance to the band that had done A Quick One and Sell Out is that, aside from the performance of Tommy (which is somewhat abridged), only three tracks tracks on the album had previously appeared on Who studio albums (My Generation, A Quick One While He’s Away, Tattoo). Otherwise, the band dips heavily into its hit-singles catalogue, and also relies heavily on covers of oldtime rock-and-roll/blues numbers. They even kick off the show with a song, Heaven and Hell, that never made it onto any regular studio albums, and which was written primarily for the purpose of live performance. But more than the track listing is the sound: live, the band was LOUD, yet ferociously tight, and the sound demonstrates an awesome crunch without ever devolving into directionless noise. The instrumental dynamics are really something to behold; Pete mostly uses some of the most ferocious rhythm playing I’ve ever heard to lay down a foundation over which Moon and Entwistle can dominate the sound with amazing drum and bass lines, but he also puts out some great solos when needed. This album largely shows that Pete may not have always functioned as a “lead” guitarist in the purest sense, but there’s no question that he leads the direction of the songs at any point, and that Keith and John had an incredibly well-developed ability to follow his lead. And one mustn’t forget Roger, who, despite obviously not being in top condition (he sounds a little under the weather), still sounds incredible overall, introducing the fierce voice that would first manifest itself on a studio album with Who’s Next.

The familiar songs all receive major transformations, emphasizing that the band wasn’t content just to play its songs exactly as they were in the studio. The rendition of Tommy strips away all of the quiet acoustic aspects of the studio version (and I liked the quiet acoustic aspects, mind you), grabs onto the great riffs and turns the tracks into simply ferocious rockers. The highlight of this performance of Tommy, to me, is definitely the Amazing Journey/Sparks combination, with monstrous basslines and feedback in the latter, but while some of the rest shows the band as slightly tired and exhausted, most of the other Tommy numbers are great as well. The ending portion of We’re Not Gonna Take It goes down especially well, though I should note that Roger had to re-record his vocal track at a much later date, thus slightly marring the “authenticity” of the performance.

The non-Tommy material gets largely reborn as well. I Can’t Explain, Substitute, Happy Jack and I’m a Boy all get turned from cute little power pop ditties into full-blown hard rockers with Pete, John and Keith taking turns trying to blow my speakers out. My Generation kicks off a 15-minute medley, with Pete pulling out amazing guitar lines one after another (there’s a moment when the sound goes quiet and then Pete starts playing this shimmering guitar line that has to be one of my favorite moments in all of rock music, and definitely one of my favorite Who moments) and the others showing an amazing ability to follow suit (incluing Roger, who sings a reprise of the See Me Feel Me section and a variant of it at a later point). Magic Bus, which closes the show, turns into a 7 minute theatre piece, with Roger and Pete engaging of what has to be one of the most infamous (and rightfully so) vocal back-and-forths in the history of rock music. A Quick One … changes drastically from the excessively sissified original, adding power to the instrumental parts, some really terrific singing from everybody, a hilarious atmosphere and just enough clumsiness to work with the song. Tattoo breaks the pattern in that it’s done closely to the original, but it sounds great, so I’m not going to complain.

Oh, and don’t forget the great opener. Heaven and Hell gets sung by John, and it immediately demonstrates the unbelievable level of power and tightness in the band’s live sound. Pete gets off a FANTASTIC solo in the middle, but it’s in his function as a rhythm player that he shines most in this track, and Keith and John do a good job of showing why they could make a strong case as the best rhythm section in rock.

And then there’s the covers, three of which were on the original six-track version. Fortune Teller (which segues into Tattoo) may be a little sluggish at first, but it has enough power to make it work, and once it picks up steam, it equals any other version I can imagine. Young Man Blues, one of the band’s signature stage pieces in the era, starts with some terrific vocal-guitar call-and-response, then breaks into a frantic instrumental break featuring Pete soloing at a breakneck pace and then going nuts trying to squeeze sounds out of his Gibson SG, before coming back together for a huge finish. Summertime Blues, then, makes a good case for being the band’s best cover, and the best version of the song ever done. Let’s face it, it would be hard for another version of it to surpass the powerful and tight playing of this, or especially for somebody to a better “boss voice” than John does (Boris strikes again!). And finally, as the liner notes say, there is “the best pre-Beatles British rock’n’roll song bar none,” Shakin’ All Over. It’s just more great rock’n’roll with more great howling from Roger, more insanity from Keith and John, and more great soloing from Pete.

Now, for a long time, I considered this their best album bar none, and figured that when I got around to making one of these sites, this would be getting the top grade. The problem to me is that, for the time, this was actually a pretty average show from the band, and didn’t showcase them at their very best. This was their first performance in England after six weeks of touring the US, and they were playing a full length Tommy every night and (presumably) starting to get a little sick of it. In fact, if you read the excerpts from an interview they did that day (included in the liner notes), you will see that the guys, particularly Pete, were really getting tired of performing. Plus, as mentioned, Daltrey, while sounding great, still sounds like he’s not at his very best. On the other hand, though, I guess these problems speak more to the band’s credit than anything else; if a substandard Who concert can be considered the standard for live concert albums for almost 30 years, imagine how these guys would do on a good night!

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April 25, 2013 - Posted by | The Who Live At Leeds |

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