You’ll get no argument here that the Who are worthy of whatever honors VH1 (or anyone, for that matter) wants to bestow on them – albums such as “The Who Sell Out,” “Tommy,” “Who’s Next” and “Quadrophenia,” assure their place in the rock pantheon, no matter how weak their recordings and performances have become over the past two decades. But the “VH1 Rock Honors: The Who” show taped at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion Saturday night (and set to be broadcast ThursdayJuly 17), proved what made the Who so special – and in a probably unexpected way – of all the bands on the bill, only Pearl Jam came close to the mix of anarchy, emotion and power the Who could summon in their prime.
They even kicked off with the Foo Fighters (introduced by a very hoarse David Duchovny) barreling though “Young Man Blues,” with all the fury of the Who’s version on “Live at Leeds.” But bringing Supergrass’ Gaz Coombes to join them for “Bargain” was a mistake. Even though the bands are touring together, they obviously had not spent much time on the song; Coombes never sounded comfortable.
The Flaming Lips were not much better and, like Coombes and the Foos, their performance begged the question: If you’re honoring a band, shouldn’t you rehearse enough to at least play their music competently? Their medley of songs from “Tommy” took its cue from the Who’s epically shambolic performance at Woodstock (which is not a compliment). Wayne Coyne rolled around in his bubble and, once free, hit a gong with abandon, but the graceless transitions between songs and out of tune vocals made for a depressing spectacle. And knocking over a drum kit does not make you Keith Moon.
Incubus, surprisingly, acquitted themselves quite well. Their versions of “I Can See for Miles” and “Can’t Explain” at least hit their musical marks, even if they flattened out the songs’ emotions, turning the lysergic arrogance of the former and the romantic panic of the latter into feckless, post-adolescent petulance.
Tenacious D was a nice break from the furrowed brows that came before them. The Who’s humor is one of the band’s most overlooked aspects, and Jack Black and Kyle Goss catch at least a whiff of it performing “Squeeze Box,” probably the Who’s most lighthearted tune.
Pearl Jam closed out the first half of the show with the best perf of the evening. The most direct descendent of the Who, they played with a confidence missing earlier in the evening. Eddie Vedder might be the only singer working today who can summon Roger Daltrey’s combination of power and nuance, as he was able to nail both the submissive “Love Reign O’er Me” (which they recorded for the soundtrack of last year’s Adam Sandler/Don Cheadle vehicle, “Reign Over Me”) and pugnacious “The Real Me.”
In typical VH1 fashion, the bands are introduced by celebrities who are chosen more for their demographic appeal than any real connection with the band – “The Office’s” Rainn Wilson, dressed as Elton John from Ken Russell’s “Tommy” movie, is amusing, and Sean Penn, introducing Pearl Jam, brings a little sass, but Mila Kunis and Adam Sandler?
Even given the mixed bag of tributes that preceded them, the Who’s appearance was anti-climactic. Like every other band on the bill, they had to compete with the clips and memories of the ’60s and ’70s Who, and they, too, fell short. Competent but uninspiring, they ran through an hour-long set that offered no surprises. Daltrey can still roar when called up, and Pete Townsend plays guitar with his signature percussive strum, but the perf has all the excitement of listening to a great-uncle repeat his war stories for the umpteenth time.
And even though there are two extra musicians (John “Rabbit” Bundrick on keyboards and Pete’s brother Simon on guitar) on stage, the music sounds under-populated. Pino Palladino and Zak Starkey don’t attempt to imitate John Entwhistle or Moon, leaving large holes in the songs. The only time the band sounds engaged is when they lock into a jazzy, funk groove after the key change on the break of “My Generation”; it’s the most focused music of the night.
Watching this version of the Who is like watching an all-star ballplayer in the waning days of his career – yes, he can do some of the things he used to and even occasionally display the power and grace of his youth; but the almost arrogant joy is missing. In its place are sweat and strain and the sad drudgery of work.
If VH1 really wanted to pay tribute to the Who, they’d be better advised to run “The Kids Are Alright” and the band’s appearances on ’60s TV shows.
The Who return to Los Angeles for two nights at the Nokia Theater on Nov. 8 and 9.