The who live at the fillmore east 1968 (music review)

It’s hard to get excited about a new Who live release; it’s hard not to get excited about a new Who live release. A dozen years since their last new studio album (though with regular teases of a mysterious Floss album), the band and their people continued to put out live discs and compilations, more or less sustaining fans, but sometimes drifting toward redundancy. Few bands, if any, have matched the ferocity of the Who on stage, but much officially released material has targeted a single era, starting in 1969 and continuing for a few years with live versions of Tommy and similar cuts rounding out the show (see Leeds, Hull, and Isle of Wight for starters).


Other releases have captured either the big band sounds from tours in the 1980s or recent incarnations of the group. All of this music is quite stellar, but Live at the Fillmore East 1968 offers a surprisingly insightful moment in an overlooked period of the band, after they moved out of their R&B; mod grooves and before they had fully developed the massive sound of the early 1970s. As such, fans will enjoy it as a historical document, but the real rewards come in simply going with the energy of the set.

Happily, the setlist hasn’t yet solidified into that of the Leeds era. Some of the standard cuts are here, of course. "Summertime Blues", "Fortune Teller", and "Tattoo" open the show. Without Live at Leeds as a comparison point, these would come across as complete ragers. As it is, these show the band almost hitting its full sound, an amazing statement given that they would already be on the shortlist for the best live rock band in the world. "I Can’t Explain" shows why. It holds all the pop sensibilities of the single, but the Who rough it up and turn in into something else for the stage. Guitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend has his chatty moments throughout the set (as he does), but the band never hesitates musically, running a sprint and a marathon at the same time.

The variations of the band’s live standards are a treat, but the real joy of the first disc comes with the unexpected numbers. Along with "Summertime Blues", two other Eddie Cochrane numbers get the Who treatment. "My Way" turns into a beast. Drummer Keith Moon stays unexpectedly close to the beat, but his hammering approach matches the menace in singer Roger Daltrey’s vocals. "C’mon Everybody" might the most unlikely number on the album. It doesn’t roar like the rest of the disc, but it’s an energetic look back at the roots of the Who.

The Who Sell Out gets some proper representation with a lengthy version of "Relax". Despite the song’s title, the band has no intention of settling. It’s an anxious number, with Townshend fidgety in his chordal riffing and Moon pushing the tempo. By the time the jam kicks in, the group’s in full tumult, and bassist John Entwistle takes over as the most interesting performer for a considerable stretch (though I imagine both Townshend and the ghost of Moon would take issue with that). The band already displays one of its key strengths as a live act: the ability to increase and increase tension before blasting off somewhere unexpected, or backing off enough that the performance can move in a new, equally intense direction. When the band returns to the song proper, it’s with appropriate thunder. Even hardcore Wholigans might be surprised to hear this intense a performance come out of "Relax".

The rest of the first disc pitches itself pretty much at "destroy", even as the band manages to play with its dynamics. There’s no sense that they’re constantly at 10, so everything’s flattened out. There’s even room for a little humor, as when Townshend plays the "Day Tripper" riff in the middle of a massive "Shakin’ All Over" that meets or exceeds more famous versions of this cut. While the band hasn’t quite established that 1970 sound, their reaching for it remains both amazing and energizing.

Disc two, consisting entirely of a 30-minute rendition of "My Generation" complicates matters. The Who have never been a proper jam band, and maybe 27 minutes of jamming sounded better in 1968 than it does 50 years later, but this stretch seems just a bit off, a little given to wandering energy. The solution would probably have been just to shorten it, or to add another song. The band’s play with dynamics and with tension-and-release (done so well earlier in the show and on later live albums) works marginally well here, and some of the weirdness adds flavor and Entwistle’s more prominent moments are wonderful.

What’s captivating about the track, though, is its connection to what will follow it historically. The seeds for Tommy seem to be here. Townshend would begin talking about that concept album by summer 1968 (the Fillmore show was recorded on April 6), and recording would start in September. The musical roots of the album stretch back at least to Sell Out’s "Rael", however. The long jam to close this concert feels like a bridge between the two albums. The Who never turn toward that pretty riff that connects "Rael" to "Sparks" from Tommy, but at moments they turn toward not only toward the rhythm guitar of "Overture" but also to the live approach they’d later take to "Sparks". At 1968, it’s not yet the finished and unforgettable piece that it would become, but the potency already comes to the fore, and the sort of give-and-take used in "Relax" works well. It’s that one dramatic moment away from the iconic marvel it would be even a year a later.