Music Blu-ray and Album Reviews: The Who - Tommy Live at the Royal Albert Hall plus Tom Russell, Nona Hendryx & Gary Lucas, Rob Lutes, Linda Perhacs

By , Contributor
I would have guessed that at least a few live performances of the Who’s famous, nearly 50-year-old rock opera would have been preserved on disc well before now. As it turns out, not only is that not the case but until this year the group had never even played the entire opus in concert.

They came close at some shows, several of which have been released on CD, most recently on the “super deluxe edition” of the original album, a lavishly packaged 2013 box whose bonus features include a 1969 performance of the opera. But like other Tommy concerts, the ’69 one is missing a few of its tracks.

That’s not the case with the show captured on a new Blu-ray. Performed earlier this year at a charity event for Teenage Cancer Trust at London’s Royal Albert Hall, it delivers the entire rock opera, note for note, from start to finish. Moreover, the band tacks seven other Who staples on at the end: “I Can’t Explain,” “Join Together,” “I Can See for Miles,” “Who Are You,” “Love, Reign O’er Me,” “Baba O’Riley,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” (Less-notable bonus features include a 13-minute documentary about the cancer charity and preparations for the concert, plus videos of “The Acid Queen” and “Pinball Wizard” that show computer-generated graphics rather than the band.)

This is not, of course, the same Who lineup that originally recorded Tommy. Keith Moon died in 1978, and John Entwistle passed in 2002. But the group’s two other cofounders, creative mastermind and primary Tommy composer Pete Townshend and vocalist Roger Daltry—who are 71 and 73, respectively, at the time of this gig—still have what it takes to effectively convey this music. So do their current sextet of backup musicians, who include Townshend’s brother Simon on rhythm and acoustic guitars, and Zak Starkey, Ringo Starr’s son, on drums. No one will ever replace Keith Moon, but Starkey shines in the big role that Tommy provides for him.

The rock opera itself—presented on Blu-ray with superb DTS-HD Master audio—holds up well. True, the story—about a troubled deaf, dumb, and blind boy who becomes a guru—is thin at times and downright silly at others. (As Townshend says in the video, he wrote his Tommy songs when he was only 23 “so it’s got some quite geeky bits that I wouldn’t put in today.”) But the music—which includes a few songs by Entwistle and Moon as well as Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind”—is as much of a treat as it was when the group first recorded it. 

BRIEFLY NOTED 

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Tom Russell, Play One More: The Songs of Ian & Sylvia. Tom Russell, a longtime Ian & Sylvia fan and sometime collaborator, recorded this tribute album in the duo’s native Canada with guitarist Grant Siemens and vocalist Cindy Church. Eschewing the couple’s best-known songs—“Summer Wages,” “You Were On My Mind,” “Someday Soon,” and, of course, “Four Strong Winds”—Russell demonstrates that there’s much more to their catalog than many people realize. On the program: evocative obscurities like “Sylvia’s “The Night the Chinese Restaurant Burned Down” and Ian’s “These Friends of Mine” and “Wild Geese,” plus “Thrown to the Wolves, which Russell wrote with Sylvia, and “When the Wolves No Longer Sing,” which he penned with Ian. As Russell writes in the liner notes, these songs “call up the Canadian landscape like classic short stories or paintings.” The record ends with a couple of previously unreleased 1960s demos performances by the duo themselves: “Grey Morning” and “The French Girl.” Here’s hoping this terrific CD will help shine a light on both Ian & Sylvia and Tom Russell, two of the most under-appreciated folk acts of the last half century.

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Nona Hendryx and Gary Lucas, The World of Captain Beefheart. One of the biggest mistakes I've ever made as a record collector was to give away my copy of Safe as Milk, the 1967 debut album from Captain Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet. At the time, I didn’t know what to make of this odd LP, but as I later discovered and as Ed Ward comments in his incisive liner notes on this new tribute album: “Despite the criticism he drew for being unapproachably avant-garde, there was a pop heart beating in the Beefheart beast. You just had to seek it out.” Soul singer Nona Hendryx (from Labelle and Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles) and guitarist Gary Lucas (who played on the two final Beefheart LPs), do that and more, tapping both mainstream and idiosyncratic material from throughout the late artist’s career. Some of it—such as the sweet, Smokey Robinson-influenced “I’m Glad” and the bluesy “Sure ‘Nuff ’N Yes I Do”—is instantly accessible; other tracks venture into experimental jazz and surrealistic lyrics and require more effort on the part of the listener. It’s all worth hearing, though, and you can be sure I won’t be giving this one away. 

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Rob Lutes, Walk in the Dark. You should probably file Canadian singer-songwriter Rob Lutes’s seven albums under “folk,” but there’s more than a bit of blues and soul in his arresting vocals. This latest record includes a dozen originals (three of them cowritten), plus a fine cover of John Prine’s “Rocky Mountain Time” (from Prine’s Diamonds in the Rough). The instrumentation—which includes keyboards, mandolin, violin, percussion, guitars, and harmonica—is consistently excellent, as are Lutes’s contemplative lyrics about life, love, death, and the blues. 

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Linda Perhacs, I’m a Harmony. Linda Perhacs may hold a record for Most Time Elapsed Between Debut and Sophomore Albums: 44 years. Her first LP, Parallelograms, came out in 1970, and when it flopped, she went back to being a dental hygienist. But a cult following for the record built over decades and, in 2014, she returned with The Soul of All Natural Things. With a history like that, the three-year wait for her next album seems like nothing. Though Perhacs is now 75, at any rate, she still sounds like a bit of flower child on I’m a Harmony, which features titles like “Take Your Love to a Higher Level” and “You Wash My Soul in Sound.” Billed in a press release as “psych folk,” the album employs electronically enhanced soundscapes and meditative, spiritual lyrics about life and relationships. It’s probably not for everyone, but for the right ears, it can be soothing and seductive.

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon as well as Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches and Encounters and Leonard Cohen…

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