Film : Who plays best
After 31 years, a legendary concert that was filmed at the height of the remarkable career of the classic British rock band The Who, has finally made it out of the vault and onto the big screen. This Saturday only, the Capawock Theatre will present "The Who at Kilburn 1977."
In 1977, The Who fan Jeff Stein, who was documenting the band's career for his film, "The Kids are Alright," staged a concert to record some of the key songs that were not available in archival footage. The Who had not performed live in over a year and the band was not happy with their performance at the Gaumont State Theater in Kilburn, North London. So most of the live footage was abandoned and hidden away until now.
Despite the band's misgivings about this concert, it is an electric performance by one of greatest live bands. It is a must-see, not only for The Who fans, but for rock fans in general. This up-close and personal view of a live performance provides the viewer with every expression, every complex guitar solo, and every subtle interaction in a way no concert-going experience can.
The show opens with two of The Who's early singles, "I Can't Explain" and "Substitute." The songs are good examples of the power pop that has caused them to be recognized by some as the Godfathers of Punk. The band's performance at this point seems a little raw, though in keeping with the feel of the tunes, and the guitar-driven "I Can't Explain" really sets the stage for the highly energized performance that follows.
Once the foursome breaks into the classic "Baba O'Riley," the explosive driving aggressiveness that is The Who's trademark is in full evidence.
Guitarist Pete Townshend and lead singer Roger Daltrey have a unique alchemy due to their very distinctly different stage personas. Daltrey is pure confidence. In a muscle shirt and painted-on jeans, his trademark cascading blond curls, chiseled features and penetrating blue eyes, he reigns supreme on stage. His voice is as strong and confident as ever. He is the rock god who can convincingly roar, "I don't need to fight, to prove I'm right. I don't need to be forgiven."
While Daltrey's stage theatrics are limited to a masculine swagger and a fair amount of posturing, Townshend is all loose-limbed frenetic energy. While constantly leaping, pogo-ing, executing flying splits and other manic acrobatics, he still somehow turns in a flawless virtuoso performance. With his classic windmill guitar style, Townshend almost seems as if he's trying to crank himself up to an even higher adrenaline level. It's thrilling to watch.
Yet, with his face serious and focused at all times, it appears that the anger expressed in many of the lyrics is what's truly driving the guitarist. And that anger comes to the surface at one point as he shouts, "This wasn't (expletive) worth filming. Might as well send the camera crew home."
Only Daltrey's professional cool can keep the show going, and so it does. Townshend appears just as strong and possibly even more driven after the outburst.
Despite the compelling performances of the two frontmen, it's really the tragic Keith Moon who commands one's attention during this concert film. This was to be his penultimate performance. He died less than a year later of an overdose on a drug used to combat alcohol withdrawal. Seated majestically behind an enormous drum set, and dressed outrageously in a purple-bespangled and fringed two-piece satin suit, Moon looks almost like an odd spaceship commander overseeing the master controls. And he is the master of his self-contained universe as he effortlessly moves through the fluid, busy drumming technique he pioneered. Yet there's a sadness in the spectacle of the puffy, out of shape Moon wearing a goofy grin throughout the performance. Prophetically the drummer announces at the intro to "Behind Blue Eyes" that "I'm gonna go backstage and O.D. and I'll be back in a few minutes." He returns looking more wild-eyed than before, leading one to believe that his comment was only half-joking.
The set concludes with a fueled performance of the powerful "We Won't Get Fooled Again." This last song, along with "Baba O'Riley" and "Behind Blue Eyes" is from "Who's Next" which was released shortly after this concert, and is regarded as one of the greatest rock albums of all time. The Who, although they continue to perform today, never made another hugely successful album, and their music became somewhat more watered down and mainstream.
The film also includes never-before-seen footage from a 1969 concert, which, although of poor quality, provides an interesting contrast to the 1977 performance.
Shot in 35MM by a novice filmmaker, this expertly edited film has surprisingly high production value, and the sound in this digitally restored and audio remastered version is exceptional. It's a great look back at one of the most recognized bands in the annals of rock and roll at the pinnacle of their career, and at the grit and intensity that epitomized this memorable era in rock history.
"The Who at Kilburn 1977," Capawock Theater, Saturday, Nov. 15 at 4 and 9:15 pm. $9; $7 for children.
Gwyn McAllister is a freelance writer living in Oak Bluffs.