Classic Rock Review

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The Who Live At The Isle Of Wight (1996)


It would be hard to think of another band where even the most hardcore fans could reasonably claim that two live albums recorded within months of each other would each deserve consideration as one of the greatest live albums of all time (Maybe Grateful Dead fans would argue with this; hopefully Pearl Jam fans wouldn’t).

For a very long time, the traditional debate of “greatest live album ever” tended to center around Live at Leeds and The Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, but the moment this performance was unearthed from the archives in 1996, this jumped into the thick of the discussion. For me, despite the fact that it’s an archive release, this is the best Who that money can buy and the greatest live album ever, just a tick above Leeds.

That doesn’t mean fans of Leeds will necessarily love this one, though. While the two concerts were recorded only about six months apart, Leeds depicted a very different kind of concert from this one. Leeds was performed at an indoors theater for a bunch of college students, and it showed the band as a well-oiled machine, firing on all cylinders; it’s a great live album for anyone who likes the combination of noise and precision that the band could produce, and it’s an album that rewards a great set of speakers. It also showed them playing a little more conservatively than might have been desired, which isn’t shocking given that they’d just gotten back from the US and were a little tired. Aside from the band members, Roger wasn’t at his very best, and might have even been a little under the weather.

In contrast, The Isle of Wight festival was a gathering of a few hundred thousand totally stoned teenagers and young adults who just wanted loud music and a lot of pot (and who spent much of their time complaining that it wasn’t free), and the band adjusts its playing accordingly. One major improvement comes from Roger, whose singing here, in contrast to whatever issues may be on Leeds, is probably his greatest recorded work. I wouldn’t go as far as I used to in saying that this is my favorite (over a whole album) rock vocal performance from anybody, but it’s still way up there.

As for the other members, the playing is a little less clean and crisp than at Leeds (Moon, for instance, seems to be noticably off in a handful of spots), but it’s compensated on the whole by the way it seems like Pete is trying to execute the audience with his guitar playing. Yes, he goofs on a couple of the more intricate guitar parts, and misses some chords here and there, but his rhythm playing on this album is spectacular, and besides, the guitar tone is awesome. Wait, no, that won’t do, let’s try that again. The guitar tone is awesome. It’s the greatest guitar tone I’ve ever heard. For some, this trade (relatively speaking) of conservative precision for energetic sloppiness won’t be a worthwhile one, but it’s one I’m willing to make just fine.

The concert can be divided neatly into three parts, and all three are fantastic. The pre-Tommy portion opens with three tracks that were on Leeds, and overall they sound surprisingly different from there. Heaven and Hell suffers a little bit from Keith losing the beat a bit with his drumming (one of the few times I’ve ever heard that from him) in the beginning, and from Pete making the mid-song guitar solo section much less like the (effective) Jimmy Page aping on Leeds and more like a caveman crushing a tiger with a rock, but it ends up working fine.

I Can’t Explain immediately shows that Roger’s voice is in top form, and then there’s Young Man Blues. There are a couple of moments of sloppiness in the start-stops in the first part, but they’re minor, and they’re more than made up for by the mid-section. Pete goes absolutely insane in here, bashing and thrashing and squeezing all sorts of heavenly feedback noises out of his guitar, and basically blows away the Leeds version of this section.

The band then takes the opportunity to introduce the audience to two Lifehouse tracks, which ended up condemned to rarity status but which are quite great. I Don’t Know Myself features a fun riff and some great lyrics along the lines of the title, and Water gets extended from its standard 4 -minute length to a monstrous 9-minute epic, featuring some terrific soloing and some of Roger’s best singing on the album (the way he sings those opening lines is just glorious). Of course, if you’re feedback averse at all, you should probably stay away from Water here, but if that’s the case, why are you listening to this album in the first place?

And then we have the main attraction: Tommy. If you have never heard a great live version of Tommy (and no, the Leeds rendition was not great, only good), you haven’t lived. As on Leeds, the acoustic guitars are gone, leaving in their wake a furious assault as only The Who could provide. The star of the show is, as you might expect, Pete; I know it might seem monotonous to keep bringing up his riffing, but I don’t think it can be emphasized enough here.

Also, it becomes completely obvious at times how much passion he has for this, his brainchild, even after performing it over and over and over again (which he alludes to in the introduction); listen to his triumphant playing in the extended coda of Overture or his singing in It’s a Boy or the absolutely 100% perfect riffing in See Me Feel Me (my favorite part on the whole album by the way) and you’ll know what I mean. There are guitar lines in See Me Feel Me, in particular, that make me absolutely weak in the knees. Roger is awesome in this part as well.

The post-Tommy sequence is fantastic as well, featuring a non-stop Summertime Blues/Shakin’ All Over/Spoonful/Twist and Shout/Substitute/My Generation/Naked Eye (another Lifehouse song, one of my very favorites)/Magic Bus medley. All of the songs sound different from any version I’ve heard before, even for somebody like me who knows Leeds basically by heart. Summertime Blues is sloppier than the perfect Leeds version, but Shakin’ All Over/Spoonful/Twist and Shout obliterates the Leeds version (“LIIIIIIIIIIIIES about you”), so that competition largely ends up a push. Plus, there’s the additional bonus of when you hear Pete’s gutiar start to give out near the end of Magic Bus. Rarely have I ever heard anything cooler than what are essentially the guitar’s deathbed moans. The one and only drawback is that it stopped him from playing more (reports say that he was furious when his guitar broke because he wanted to play even more, but whatever).

For what it’s worth, Pete himself always said that this was one of their best nights, and I’d have to assume this is true. Somebody who already has Leeds may not see the worth in shelling out money for this as well, but as somebody who loves Leeds, there was nonetheless a long time where I probably listened to this twice as much as any other Who CD. It’s not just the way this album displays the eternal genius of The Who, their ability to bring cacaophony and beauty together and fuse them into one overwhelmingly moving and powerful force, better than any other album by them. No, it’s more than that; this live album, more than any other I know, is the perfect symbol of where rock music stood at the crossroads between the 60’s and the 70’s. That is, a decade or so into its life, with one foot still firmly in the past, and one foot moving tentatively into unknown, “artsier” territory. It is a celebration of rock’s past, and a show of optimism for its future, and that vibe can’t help but make it even better to me.

January 3, 2014 - Posted by | The Who Live At The Isle Of Wight |

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