Pete Townshend had never toured North America on his own until this summer, and he seemed determined to make up for lost time. For three hours at the Wiltern, the 48-year-old rock star flogged himself and his large band through the Coast premiere of his new theater piece “Psychoderelict” and several first-rate rousers from his and the Who’s songbooks.
And for a surprise thrill, old bandmate John Entwistle joined Townshend for three Who numbers at the close.
Something for everyone, in other words, with risk-taking, nostalgia and plenty of the old exuberance. Alas, some of the impact was garbled by conditions beyond Townshend’s control.
“Psychoderelict,” released in June by Atlantic, is a fascinating hourlong work, all tied up in Townshend’s love-hate relationships with the music business , the press and ultimately himself.
In portraying the hero as an aging rock star with an idealistic unfinished project on the shelf, Townshend makes it obvious that “Lifehouse”– an aborted 1971 film project that nevertheless yielded many of his greatest songs — continues to haunt him. Indeed, Townshend includes four unreleased “Lifehouse” demos in “Psychoderelict,” representing his character’s unfinished work.
Yet while “Psychoderelict” is often quite moving on CD, with its scraps of running dialogue (Atlantic plans to release a version without dialogue) and a number of fine new songs (“English Boy,””Now and Then”), it became a murky muddle in the Wiltern. Blame the over-reverberant acoustics, which made the dialogue almost unintelligible. On the plus side, the work was enhanced by projections that clarified some of the emotions suggested by the text. Three hardy actors tried to put over the dialogue as best they could, and Townshend — who hovered inquisitively over the action — ripped through the new songs with gusts of passion.
Townshend still does his trademark windmill guitar motions and some limited leaps (hampered by the cramped stage). His choice of tunes was exquisite, hitting high points like “Face the Face,” a vigorous “Pinball Wizard” on acoustic guitar, a mostly acoustic “Corinna, Corinna,” a churning cover of the English Beat’s “Save It for Later.”
With poker-faced-as-ever Entwistle on bass, Townshend seemed more than content to commune with the spirit of the Who, striking up “Magic Bus,””Let’s See Action” and a roaring “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” But it was a bonus, not a crutch, for Townshend had already proven that his solo career has a present and a future.