Pete sells out, and then some: Since opening his own Internet kiosk (www.eelpie.com), the Who's songwriter-guitarist has opened the vaults and introduced American shoppers to the value of buying music by the pound (conversion rates being what they are). Earlier in the year, he finally unloaded the Lifehouse baggage he's been carrying around for some 30 years -- six discs in all, including a BBC-produced radio play, remasters and remixes, plus some classical gas that's not so embarrassing after all. He's also hawking a three-disc boxed set comprising love songs to Meher Baba; autographed first editions of Horse's Neck, with the signature being the only thing worth the cost; and assorted errata hoarded in case a worldwide garage sale ever broke out -- what luck, indeed. Now, at year's and century's end, comes even more product ripe for giving to that discriminating Who fan (is there such a thing anymore?) on the holiday shopping list: three double-disc live albums recorded, respectively, in 1996, 1998, and this year. Add to that the Who live two-fer being sold Web-only (for a reason, too, in case you're considering making the buy), and Townshend's released in one year more albums than Stevie Ray Vaughan since his death in 1990. Little wonder Rolling Stone included the codger on its list of "People of the Year"; the 55-year-old hasn't moved this much product in decades.
Surprisingly, most of it's worth the import prices: The Empire disc -- a career-spanning best-of that dates all the way back to "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere" (introduced as "my Roger Daltrey song") and "Substitute" and includes two songs from 1993's Psychoderelict (his last studio offering) -- proves Townshend more than an old fart vying for a second wind. With a four-piece band in tow (plus rapper Hame, doing his best at doing his worst), Townshend comes across like a man reborn, free of expectation and unburdened by legacy. For every safe rendition of an old standby ("Let My Love Open the Door," "You Better You Bet," "Pinball Wizard" and "Behind Blue Eyes," the last of which he still insists "may be the best thing I've ever written"), there are plenty of raves and faves he stretches out 'til they snap and shatter. "Who Are You" has been shined up and synthed up 'til it sounds utterly, astonishingly brand-new; Hame's freestyling never gets in the way and, in fact, sounds almost appropriate -- the drunken ramblings of a man standing too long in the freezing rain with no place to go. And "Magic Bus," once an insufferable toss-off, comes to life in this setting: It has been deconstructed into a barrage of riffs and grunts and moans, a stop-and-start rocker smaller than its Live at Leeds counterpart but infinitely more fun and, yeah, more listenable.
The great thing about Townshend is his willingness (or is it desire?) to play the back catalogue without pandering to the classic-rock fetishists who shout out requests, only to be dispensed with like comedy-club hecklers. He reinvents himself and his oldies without coming across as desperate; he doesn't need to be liked, only appreciated. And so he chats a little, wanders a lot, and never ever plays the ancient shit as if it's a chore; he's no Ray Davies, wheeling out "You Really Got Me" from the old-folks' home. You get the sense that he needs to keep playing these songs, tweaking them to fit his mood or the setting; you get the feeling he'd perform them in his basement, for himself, if no one were left who was willing to fork over the price of admission. (The Lifehouse box contains myriad reconstructed versions of venerable classics, meaning he's never just written a song and let it go.) So he tones down "Mary Anne With the Shaky Hands," duets with singer-guitarist Tracey Langran on a sultry "Acid Queen," and sneers through an extended "Won't Get Fooled Again" that lasts almost 13 minutes and never runs out of gas, not even when it devolves into nothing but feedback and harmonica wheezing. And middle age has softened Townshend just a little, if a little too much at times: "The Kids Are Alright" meanders long enough to allow him to ask, "What can ever be wrong with kids?! Nothing wrong with my kids! How about your kids? In the year 2000, the kids are all right!" It's silly but forgivable: The man who hoped to die before he got old still believes, even if it's in someone else's generation.
But the Sadler's Wells two-fer really qualifies as -- go on, say it -- Townshend's modern masterpiece. A run-through of songs intended for Lifehouse (which later turned into Who's Next and bits of Who Are You), with the addition of one brand-new song titled "Can You Help the One You Really Love?", the disc proves Townshend need not sink into concept-album quicksand to make a Statement. Stripped of Lifehouse's incomprehensible story about a power grid that connects the world through music made from emotional radiation . . . uh . . . or something, it's nothing more than a two-hour trip through mid-period Who, back when the band proved it possible to reach the back of the arena with nothing more than an acoustic guitar.
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Split between the unfamiliar ("Time Is Passing," the gorgeous "Mary," "I Don't Even Know Myself" and the beautiful new song) and the formidable (disc two, which contains everything from "Baba O'Riley" to "Who Are You" to "Won't Get Fooled Again" to "The Song Is Over," plays like its own best-of), Sadler's Wells is almost the antithesis of the Empire disc. Where the 1998 disc is Townshend in miniature -- the Who, minus Daltrey's beloved macho bombast -- this year's model is grand and splendid, even when the songs are tiny and intimate. This time around, Townshend is aided and abetted by an enormous ensemble that includes longtime Who keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick and the London Chamber Orchestra, which manages to fill in the blanks without turning the familiar into soggy, Muzaked mush. Indeed, they lend a resonance to the material; where Townshend once sought to take rock to the opera house -- he wanted to make his music "respectable," which accounts for the pretentious, ridiculous Tommy, admit it -- he now brings the opera house into his world. For the first time in his career, he's struck the right balance between classical and classic-rock (unlike Sir Paul McCartney, whose "classical" forays sound like the strains of a music-theory grad student writing his thesis on sheet music). When the orchestra lights into "Baba O'Riley," never for a moment does it sound forced, silly or overwrought. It kinda sounds like home.