Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The School of Rock

It was fitting that VH1 decided to honor The Who in a venue at UCLA because the old boys conducted quite the master class in blistering rock 'n' roll on Saturday night. For anyone who's been following it all, I'm sure you've read about who was there, what was played, etc., so I won't attempt to give a comprehensive report here. Just a few impressions and, for me, highlights.

First of all, in the good karma department, I didn't buy an expensive ticket for this show because the belt is pretty tight these days -- what with being in school and $5 per gallon gas -- so I was determined to be content with my sky-high seat hovering over the Pete side of the stage. So imagine my surprise when an usher came along with a big smile on his face and ushered five of us from our last-row perch all the way downstairs to the floor (VH1, after all, couldn't have empty seats downstairs for the television broadcast -- doesn't look good on camera). So in the blink of an eye, I was downstairs, about half-way back on Pete's side in a section of slightly raised seats. Perfect! And all for the price of a cheap seat.

Foo Fighters kicked things off with a killer version of "Young Man Blues." They were lean and mean, just like the band being honored was in its heyday. Dave Grohl sounded froggy, but it worked for the song.

The Flaming Lips were characteristically insane, with Wayne walking out into the audience in one of his plastic bubbles. Their Tommy medley was terrific, with just enough reverence for the occasion and just enough absurdity to live up to their reputation. The bassist was in an Entwistle-esque Isle-of-Wight skeleton costume, and the drummer kicked over his kit at the end of their bit.

Incubus was one of the evening's biggest surprises for me, as they tore it up with "I Can See for Miles," one of the most difficult Who songs to pull off live, if you ask me. Brandon Boyd, while sporting an irritatingly undetectable level of body fat, sang with passion and even a little bit of danger. Their "Can't Explain" seemed anticlimactic after "Miles." An excellent job from the metal kids.

Tenacious D did their thing with "Squeezebox," one of my least favorite songs but a perfect one for their shenanigans. Jack Black's eyes could power Las Vegas with their intensity. Great fun.

Pearl Jam, it seems, had been waiting their whole lives for this night. Given the task of honoring Quadrophenia, they opened with an astonishing rendition of "Love Reign O'er Me," complete with a string section. I wanted them to do the whole double album, they were so fantastic. Eddie Vedder, an avowed Who fan, left it all on the stage that night. Their second [and sadly, last] number was a turbo-charged version of "The Real Me," with a small brass section accompanying them this time. Their bassist was recreating with abandon and precision every dancing, syncopated bass line laid down by the late, great Ox. It was thunderous. They seemed to be having the time of their lives "playing Who." It was magic.

Then the boys came out. "Baba" started things off, with the '70s-era green lasers slicing through the dark like switchblades. Roger sounded fantastic -- tanned, rested and ready -- and Pete stalked the stage like a caged lion, giving off an "F-you" energy that reminded us all that they got where they are by shattering convention, sneering at the establishment and breaking a lot of expensive stuff, not by smiling and graciously accepting awards and accolades.

Pete didn't speak to or even look at the audience, it seemed. Almost like he didn't want to be there. But whatever was bothering him [I later read he tore off a nail early in the set, and I did see blood on a Stratocaster on the video screen], he channeled it all into the music. "If it's a rock god on guitar they want, then that's what they'll get," he seemed to be saying, hurling himself [sometimes literally] into the music with a ferocity that was almost frightening.

Sound troubles seemed to be plaguing Pete, as he was gesturing to Bobby Pridden offstage frequently, occasionally stopping to stare in puzzlement at his elaborate console. He even stopped "You Better You Bet" part-way through and was yelling offstage. When it seemed he wasn't being understood he traipsed over to his mic and said, pointing to a monitor, "Whatever you've got in here, take it out. It's DEAFENING!" And the place went nuts. Roger, trying to keep a happy face on, said, "Shit happens! Shall we start again?" And they did the song over, much better this time. Pete followed by immediately launching into "My Generation," with no count in or warning, leaving the band and, most importantly, Roger, standing on the platform as the train left the station. It was the most virile, rebellious version of that song I've heard since Monterey Pop. Just incredible.

A mandolin, acoustic, country-ish version of "2,000 Years" from Endless Wire was the surprise song of the night. It was a delight to hear them do it, with Simon, Pete and Pino combining for some O, Brother, Where Art Thou?-style plucking and Roger sounding terrific. I doubt it will make it to television, though. Lots of folks [who are these people?] went to get beer during it.

"Won't Get Fooled Again" was everything you'd want it to be, with a mad jam at the end in which Pete and Zak seemed to go to another planet together, thrashing in unison like possessed animals. I'll be curious to see how it comes across on television, and even if VH1 airs the whole jam. It made Incubus, Foos, Lips and Pearl Jam seem careful and dainty. And proved the point of the whole night.

Zak deserves special mention. He was on fire throughout, as if the short set gave him permission to pull out all the stops. I've never heard him so "in charge" on stage, clearly leading the rest of the band at times in terms of tempo and dynamics. And Pino was higher in the mix than I've ever heard him, at times giving that Entwistle-esque bottom to the whole sound.

Pete and Roger made some comments at the end, with Pete taking a swipe at Roger for not writing any songs. It was like watching a married couple fight in public. Somehow perfect, though, considering their history.

One of the true highlights for me was meeting up with Cathy with a C, Colleen and Jim (Purple5) for a drink after. Good company and great conversation with people who, before this, were simply names and avatars online. We closed a joint in Westwood just sitting talking -- and not even very much about The Who. What a treat. Thanks to Cathy for calling me and stopping me from going straight home!

Hope all this is interesting to some of you who weren't able to be in the room. It was one of the best nights of music I've ever had.