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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
am no longer a member of a band called the Who,” Pete Townshend famously wrote on his band’s message board earlier this year. “I am Pete Townshend. I used to be in a band called the Who. It does not exist today except in your dreams.” Those are strong words, especially coming from the guy who has happily dragged the Who from its crypt on a regular basis over the last 20 years, but that doesn’t make them any less true – and if you want to get a crystal-clear picture of why Townshend is right about the version of the Who that currently tours the world (and recorded 2006’s Endless Wire), look no further than this long-awaited two-DVD set.
The first disc of “The Who at Kilburn 1977” presents, unsurprisingly, the Who playing Kilburn on December 15, 1977. A number of things make this concert special: First, it would end up being Keith Moon’s penultimate performance with the band, as he would overdose on the sedative Clomethiazole less than a year later; second, it found the Who re-emerging from the lengthiest period of inactivity in their history; third, it was filmed for inclusion in Jeff Stein’s “The Kids are Alright” documentary, meaning six 35mm cameras were used to capture the band’s performance; and fourth, their dissatisfaction with said performance ended up keeping most of it locked in the vaults for the last three decades. If a band as compilation-friendly as the Who can be said to still have holy grails for collectors to seek after, then this Kilburn footage certainly fits the description.
As the band had been concentrated on various non-Who projects for the 14 months leading up to the Kilburn performance, they were understandably a bit rusty – particularly Moon, whose epic ingestion of controlled substances was starting to take a noticeable toll on his health and appearance. Townshend, never one to take concert snafus lightly, was in rare form during the show, so upset over the band’s repeated gaffes that he explodes during “My Wife,” actually beating himself in the head with his own guitar at one point and finishing the song with a meltdown next to his amplifier. If you’re looking for this kind of thing, or are so familiar with the songs that you’ll pick up on the spots where the band loses itself more or less completely, it’s easy to see why the Kilburn footage was shelved; if, on the other hand, you prefer to remember the Who as the lithe, fearsome beast that prowled stages and record store shops for over a decade, fusing rock’s raw power with some of the most ambitious stuff to come out of the ‘60s and ‘70s…well, then this set isn’t just a holy grail, it’s a gift. Moon isn’t at full power, but even a restrained Moon is a marvel to behold – as is an angry Townshend, who spends the evening slashing at guitar strings and bouncing around the stage. John Entwistle is as stoic as ever, with all his motion concentrated on his famous fingers, and Roger Daltrey is at his curly-topped, leather-lunged rock god peak.
And that ain’t all. “Kilburn” also bundles in a second DVD of never-released footage from the Who’s 1969 gig at the London Coliseum, including “A Quick One While He’s Away” and Tommy in its entirety. In terms of performance quality, there’s really no comparison – as impressive as the Who was at Kilburn, they were still having an off night, and that’s readily apparent when you watch the 1969 set. Or as much as you can watch it, anyway – Stein’s 35mm cameras were nowhere near the Coliseum, and the audio and video frequently sag down to near-bootleg quality. Still, that’s a meaningless quibble; Image has done fans a real service here, and “The Who at Kilburn 1977” is a must-have for anyone who has ever loved the band, especially when you can pick it up for less than $11 at Amazon. It’s tough to live up to 30 years of expectations, but “Kilburn” does it.