Out There

Pete Townshendt
Pete Townshend Live
(Platinum Entertainment)

Nothing against the aging rocker who turns it down and tones it down as he gets older, especially when that aging rocker is a half-deaf Pete Townshend. Better to stop the rock than keep forcing it; better to go acoustic when the electric only makes you look like an old man clumsily chasing down the young man who got away. But bearing witness to the slow fade is only slightly more tolerable than listening to the man go through the motions on this double-disc live benefit, reinventing himself as a "blues man" while doing little more than wringing the life out of songs better left to classic-rock radio. "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere" rendered as eight-minute harmonica-drenched "jam"? Thanks, but no -- that song, like any other early Who single, survives only when drenched in yesterday's chaos and decibels and, of course, Roger Daltrey and Keith Moon and John Entwistle. Anything less is backward-glancing, dull restraint celebrated only by nostalgia pimps and apologists. Hey, Pete's playing Who songs? How bad can it be? Listen again, then see if you can listen at all.

But this is where the tricky part arises, because you must admire Townshend for embracing his middle age like a long lost friend; that's what separates the wise old men (say, Townshend and Ray Davies) from the lost boys (say, Mick Jagger) -- no more trying to re-create a dead history. A decade ago, he and Daltrey took their New Who Revue out on the road and hid behind horn sections and extra guitarists and backup singers; it was rock show as Vegas spectacle, a last gasp rendered as an enormous wheeze. Now, Townshend's on a House of Blues stage in Chicago with a band of unknowns respectfully resurrecting old faves ("Won't Get Fooled Again," "Magic Bus"), erstwhile hits ("You Better You Bet," "Let My Love Open the Door"), and a few best-forgotten endeavors ("North Country Girl"). Last we saw of Daltrey, he was at the Bronco Bowl backed by a county-fair orchestra, going through the stale, sad motions.

The problem is, the older, wiser, deafer Townshend paints his output in the same muted shades over and over again; catharsis too often has been replaced by too much calm, which works during the forever-dull "North Country Girl" but absolutely murders anything that came before All the Best Cowboys. "Won't Get Fooled Again" is now utterly devoid of its threat, emasculated of its thrills; it's an echo now and nothing more, drawn out over 13 excruciating minutes. Same goes for both versions of "Magic Bus," the second of which features Eddie Vedder confusing homage with parody. Beats the hell out of Psychoderelict; then, so does absolute silence.

Robert Wilonsky


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