The Who: Tommy Live
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The Who: Tommy Live

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Many of us chronicle our lives with the music that played during those memorable times we live. For me one such piece of music has to be the Who’s rock opera, Tommy. I was in my mid teens and like many of my age in a rock band. When this album burst on the scene there was nothing to compare it to, it provided innovation to the music of that day and those that would follow. This was the first of its kind, the first to be called a rock opera. There was a cohesive story line that held the entire piece together more than previous theme albums. It was one of those albums that altered the way we thought about music. Now, some thirty seven years later I had the pleasure to revisit this milestone of my youth with the format of DVD and 5.1 Dolby audio. There is a complexity to the construction of this work that transcends the decades. This is the classical music of my generation.

For those born after the Viet Nam era the story is simple. It starts back in World War I, 1914. Captain Walker is missing in action and presumed dead. His wife gives birth to their son, Tommy, and eventually takes a lover. Walker returns and in a fit of rage kills the man in front of his young son. He grabs the boy and shouts "you didn’t see it, you didn’t hear it, you won’t say nothing to one ever in your life". The boy is traumatized and becomes deaf, dumb and blind. The parents try everything to help the boy including taking him from one would be cure after another. Desperate for some normal time away from the handicapped boy the leave him in the care of a sadistic cousin and a perverted uncle. Tommy finds one pleasure in life; he can play pinball and without the normal distractions becomes a sensation. After it is discovered that Tommy can see, hear and speak and his disability is a mental block his is eventually cured and soon becomes a cult hero of messianic status. His follows come to the point of rebellion and Tommy is once again alone in the world.

Many fans of the original album, myself include, have this work so etched in our minds that almost nothing could rise to the level of our expectations. While viewing this DVD, taken from the 1989 20th anniversary tour, I had hoped to relive the past. What I discovered is even the rock legends of our youth have gotten older, but then again so have we. While original members Roger Daltrey (vcals), Pete Townshend (vocals, acoustic guitar) and John Entwistle (bass) are here in this DVD the drummer Keith Moon, long ago succumbed to his self destructive tendencies. Daltrey’s voice is now rough and occasionally cracks. When he swings his microphone the arc is diminished. Townshend still leaps with his guitar but the height and energy is not what it was when I saw them live three and half decades ago. Let’s face it, how many of us that purchased Tommy when it was new can still do what we could then? Still, the energy the band has and their obvious love for the music is still there and in this performance from the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles the Who rekindles the past with a little help from some very famous friends.

Many who have written about the 1989 performances seem to feel the drumming is lacking. While it is true that no one could fill the tragically talented shoes of Keith Moon the percussion here is very good. Simon Phillips takes on the drums while Jody Linscotts does a great job with the general percussion. Her use of the kettle drums in the overture is excellent. While Townshend keeps to the acoustic guitar his trademark power cords and electric lead is handled by Steve Bolton. While he is nowhere near the master his guitar playing here does capture the spirit of the piece.

As mentioned the Who had some friends come on stage for this performance and I have to admit the casting is strange but works extremely well. The Hawker’s song Eyesight to the Blind is performed by no less than Steve Winwood. To see this R&B idol, a man who played in Blind Faith and Traffic onstage with the Who was incredible. His voice still has the magic it did when I first heard him so long ago. Playing the sadistic cousin Kevin is Billy Idol. He burst onstage with all his swag and confidence. With his trademark curled lip he extols the torments he will bring to poor little Tommy. Ever since the 1975 movie the face of the Acid Queen has been Tina Turner. It would take someone special to fill that role but here they did it by including the First Lady of Soul herself, Pattie LaBelle. She comes out with her hair done in an inverted cup of some sort and a purple and black dress that is just about beyond description. For the role of the Pinball Wizard (actually the local kid) Sir Elton John revisits is screen presentation. In bright red suit and glittered studded hat he belts out the familiar song. The best piece of casting here is someone that obviously got into role of the perverted Uncle Ernie, Phil Collins. He swoops on tot the stage completely looking the part. His hair is disheveled, blood under his nose, band aides on his dirty face. He is wearing a blue robe, opened to reveal his filthy boxers and tee shirt. His feet clad in old boots topped by sox and garters. He flashes the band and proceeds to touch Daltrey as he sings ‘fiddle about’. He later returns during Tommy’s Holiday Camp now a bit more presentable with his red and white stripped jacket and red bow tie.

The concert was edited by Benny Trickett and he has done a great job with it. He moves the camera angles around giving more face time to the ancillary band members and back up singers than most concert films afford. The action is captured with all the energy that this seminal piece of music deserves. The one notable extra is the running visual commentary featuring Daltrey and Townshend. You just hit enter at any point and the image of one of them pops on screen to discuss some aspect of Tommy including how it came to be and what remains today. One little annoying note here. There is a circle that appears when the transition to the commentary image appears. This circle flickers one and off through the whole DVD. The video is clear and lively, more so than many over concert DVDs I’m seen. The audio is great. The default is Dolby stereo but when you switch to full on Dolby 5.1 the sound reaches out and fills the room. If you are like me and have the original album in that hall closet you have to get this if only to reconnect with those days. For the younger audiences out there, take a chance on something that was not featured on MTV and get to know what real, well constructed music is like.

Posted 6/3/06

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