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OPINION: ‘Live at Leeds’ a delight for rock lovers

December 30, 2010
By MARK J. MILLER, staff writer

This week I review the deluxe version of the Who's "Live at Leeds," recently released by Geffen Records.

The set includes a 180-gram vinyl version of the original album and a 7-inch single featuring bassist John Entwhistle's wry "Heaven and Hell" and "Summertime Blues" on the flipside? In addition, the set comes with two previously-released CDs of the complete concert - including the entire "Tommy" mini-rock opera performed that evening - as well as two CDs featuring the next night's set at Hull, a seaport city in England.

The package also comes with a 60-page, hard-back book and a huge poster of guitarist Pete Townsend in full Rickenbacker, windmill-guitar mode.

The whole shabang is going for about $65 on, which is a fair price considering the high quality of the set and media.

In the annuls of rock 'n' roll it's hard to underestimate the effect "Live at Leeds," recorded Feb. 14, 1970, at Leeds University, England, had not only on the Who's rise to superstardom but establishing the band's reputation as a live jaggernaut, a not-to-miss entity.

Often called the greatest live album in rock history, "Live at Leeds" has aged more than gracefully 40 years on.

Capturing an incendiary band at the height of its formidable powers, "Live at Leeds" is a bit of a miracle in that its power comes without a hint of self-pretense and features a loose-yet-cohesive unit powering self-confidently through a series of wry and witty originals and '50s rock covers given the inexplicable "Who treatment." Hell, even the sound of the album itself is rare among live rock albums, which usually tend to be overly pre-planned, overdubbed disappointments.

"Live at Leeds" is different because it FEELS live, with a sonic force that thunders, particularly when heard - or better yet "experienced" - on vinyl.

But the album never ventures into "these amps go up to 11," Spinal Tap territory, as the Who were too complicated a unit to be stereotypical. The Who were an organic device far greater than the sum of its parts during its early glory years, and "Live at Leeds" proves that.

"Live at Leeds" could almost be called the first, true heavy metal live album, although it's much more intelligent, dangerous and exciting than even that feeble description.

The original album featured the band firing on all cylinders, including Keith Moon's manic and complex drumming style; bassist John Entwhistle's lumbering, molten and propulsive bass lines; guitarist Pete Townsend's hyper-aggressive, proto-punk guitar style; and singer Roger Daltry's muscular-yet-tender vocals.

They broke the mold after the Who, and no band ever suffered such complex contradictions, friction between members nor possessed such honest, forthright intelligence. The Who wasn't just a rock 'n' roll band at this point in its career - it was a living organism with each member a cell.

I can still recall the feelings I had the first time I ever laid needle to wax and heard the band's explosive version of the Mose Allison classic "Young Man Blues."

Both a clarion call and a jaw-dropping realization for millions of aspiring guitarists of the sheer power and majesty of a Gibson guitar through a bank of Marshall amps, Townsend's opening riff was the history of British rock in a neat, subversive package. More punk than punk, Townsend's slashing, physical guitar style screamed full commitment.

"Live at Leeds" never lets up in intensity and drive, and the extended CDs included in the deluxe edition include the entire live "Tommy" suite from beginning to end, while the second two CDs of the set at Hull shows the Who's set at Leeds University was no fluke.

While the original, six-song LP was the meat, it's also a lot of fun to hear the band tear through other live versions of the band's originals, including the teenage lament "I Can't Explain"; the British R&B standard "Fortune Teller"; "Tattoo," the funny, Townsend-penned story of the rite-of-passage for British working-class teens; and the fabulously witty "I'm a Boy."

The book contains essays on each song as well as the state of the Who at the time, rare photographs and the miscellaneous items that came with the original pressings of "Live at Leeds," much coveted by collectors.

At 65 bucks the deluxe version of "Live at Leeds" is a worthy tribute and a must-have for all die-hard Who fans.

(Mark Miller is co-editor of Weekender.)

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