The Who: Live in Boston Review
You'll have to bear with me on this one... I've never actually reviewed a concert DVD before, so I'm getting my feet wet with a group whose songs I'm at least relatively familiar with. In other words you'll have to make do with a Who novice this time around.
Which is not to say that I haven't been to shedloads of concerts (rock, punk, indie, etc.) in my time, so I have some basis for comparison here. I'll come clean and admit that my first impressions of the footage on this DVD didn't leave me precisely gobsmacked. But before I wade into all that, I guess the obligatory bit of background setting is in order.
The concert presented on this release was filmed live in Boston (well, OK, technically in Mansfield) at a venue called the Tweeter Center on 24 September 2002. This show came practically at the end of The Who's Summer '02 tour, and perhaps this accounts for some of the performances feeling a bit tired and perfunctory. Then again, an equally plausible culprit may be the shocking event which occurred mere days before the tour was set to kick off... the death of original bassist John 'The Ox' Entwistle.
While I'm sure most Who fans already know the story backwards and forwards by now, for the benefit of those who didn't follow this bit of news quite so closely, John died on 27 June 2002 at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino (Las Vegas) of a heart attack which resulted from cocaine use. As you might imagine, there was a great deal of mixed fan sentiment when Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend announced (almost immediately) that the tour would go ahead as planned and ended up recuiting bass player Pino Paladino to fill in for Entwistle.
The Who has been accused repeatedly since the late 80s of milking the mystique of their early ground-breaking years, and the leaders' all-too-rapid move to forge on with the 2002 tour was viewed by many as yet more evidence that the band's focus has become less about the music and more about the money. That said, by all accounts Townshend and Daltrey were devastated by the news of John's demise and both of the interview segments included on this DVD seem undercut by a certain emotional restraint, so perhaps it is as others have suggested, and they simply wanted the tour to move forward as a tribute to Entwistle.
Whatever the reasons, the group's make-up that night at the Tweeter Center consisted of Roger Daltrey on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Pete Townshend on lead vocals and lead guitar, Simon Townshend on backing vocals and rhythm guitar, Zak Starkey on drums, John Bundrick on keyboards, and Pino Palladino on bass. Not, of course, that you get to see much of the backing members of The Who, as despite nine dedicated cameramen working to capture this concert, 90% of the footage concentrates on Pete and Roger in the brilliantly-lit foreground with everyone else silhouetted as murky shadows in stage rear. Still, occasionally the film crew remembers that the other four band members exist and take a few reverse-angle shots (particularly across Starkey's drums or Bundrick's keyboards) of the audience.
Speaking of which, the audience that night was well up for it, showing levels of enthusiasm which unfortunately easily outstrip those evinced by The Who themselves. This is not meant as a dig, but I've been to a lot of concerts and it did seem to me that this performance lacked the kind of energy I associate with classic rock... and certainly with a group as iconic as The Who. In many ways, Daltrey seemed the worst offender in this regard; while he dutifully went through the motions (including the ever-popular 'microphone death sling' routine which at one point comes a little close to Pete for comfort!), both his voice and his body language seemed slightly weary throughout. Comparatively speaking, Townshend came across as decidedly more into the gig... but even this impression must be tempered by the repeated instances of both he and Roger having a go at the crowd.
On the positive front, however, this concert covers a lot of musical ground, including a generous selection of 21 Who favourites going right back to their earliest material. And yes, I can already hear a lot of die-hard fans grumbling about 'wheeling out the usual suspects', but the fact is I really enjoyed not being left completely at sea by a flood of unfamiliar tracks. Luckily for me, the night seemed to spend a lot of time alternating between songs I hadn't heard before and tried-and-true hits like 'Substitute', 'Who Are You', 'Relay', 'My Generation' and 'Pinball Wizard'. The one thing you won't get on this disc, however, is any of The Who's most-recently released material, as the 2004 compilation album obviously was put together over a year later.
Just for convenience, here's the complete list of songs included on this DVD. Just bear in mind that the actual set concludes with 'Won't Get Fooled Again'... from that point on you enter 'encore land', which is a good thing as I personally would have felt gypped if 'Pinball Wizard' hadn't made an appearance.
1. 'I Can't Explain'
3. 'Anyway Anyhow Anywhere'
4. 'Who Are You'
5. 'Another Tricky Day'
8. 'Baba O'Riley'
9. 'Sea and Sand'
11. 'Love Reign O'er Me'
12. 'Eminence Front'
13. 'Behind Blue Eyes'
14. 'You Better You Bet'
15. 'The Kids Are Alright'
16. 'My Generation'
17. 'Won't Get Fooled Again'
18. 'Pinball Wizard'
19. 'Amazing Journey / Sparks'
20. 'See Me Feel Me'
21. 'Listening to You'
The video presentation here is interesting in that it's completely the opposite of what I had expected. That is to say, I would have guessed that the concert footage would have been presented in crisp, luxurious anamorphic widescreen while the two short interview segments would have been captured in your basic fullscreen. Au contraire, mon frere... Warner Music Vision decided that we'd all enjoy the concert best if it was crammed into a 4:3 box whilst the interviews with Daltrey and Townshend mysteriously sprawl wide so we can see that yes, they are indeed sitting in a studio. Weird.
But setting that aside for the moment, how is the actual picture quality? Well, the interviews (being anamorphic 16:9 and filmed with good lighting and low motion) look fabulous. The concert footage is a somewhat different matter. There you have a predominantly-dark stage with occasional bursts of illumination towards the front and gobs of motion from Pete and Roger (not to mention the endless tidal movement of the audience in the wide- and reverse-angle shots). In honest truth, I'd have expected a lot better. I mean, OK, so concerts are far from ideal picture sources to make DVDs of... but this is a dual-layer (DVD-9) disc and the concert only runs 2 hours; the bitrate should have compensated for some of the creeping macroblocking witnessed in those dark backgrounds or the general softness of the rest of the print.
Alas, it doesn't. What you have here is video that looks fine in the many close-up stage shots of the spotlight-limned Daltrey and Townshend, but which suffers noticeably whenever the cameras pull back to take in the rear stage area or the cheering crowd. The only saving grace is that motion artefacts don't seem to be a problem (at least not on well-lit subjects) and that the black levels are genuinely black, not 'dark grey'. But I still can't understand why a DVD produced this year (of a concert filmed towards the end of 2002) didn't opt for an anamorphic widescreen transfer which would have put paid to many of these issues as well as improving the levels of finer detail. Ah, well.
This DVD offers two audio options for the concert footage: Dolby Digital 5.1 and PCM Stereo. I'm sure it goes without saying that if you have a surround sound system hooked up to your DVD player, you're going to want to go with the 5.1. What might surprise you, however, is that the difference isn't so much one of sound fidelity, but one of immersive realism. I listened to the entire concert in DD 5.1 and then sampled bits of it in PCM, expecting the worst. But the truth of the matter is this: the 5.1 track doesn't pull out all the stops, so the PCM track isn't all that far behind.
In fact, the PCM stereo at points feels crisper (albeit sometimes a trifle too light) than the Dolby 5.1. Either way, you're going to be paying heavy attention to the front soundstage, as in the 5.1 mix the rear channels tend to be dominated by crowd noise with only a hint of those acoustic touches that remind you that yes, this was recorded in a huge space. That said, I'd go with the more full-bodied sound of the surround track, if only because it actually makes you feel as if you're in the middle of the audience... something you don't get at all from the PCM mix. Also, the imaging/directionality seemed more spot-on with the Dolby 5.1 than on the PCM stereo track, with Townshend's guitar coming quite distinctly from the front right and Daltrey's lyrics (though a times a bit murky) breezing in from the left.
But either way, don't expect punchy bass from this DVD; this is one concert where the subwoofer in my surround speaker system seemed to spend most of its time napping. (Oh, and the two interview segments are recorded in plain old Dolby 2.0 and - as studio audio conditions are rather unchallenging to capture competently - sound perfect.)
Maybe I set my expectations too high, but in this day and age I do tend to anticipate that studios will put at least some effort into DVD menu production. And indeed, I've seen a lot of really amazing-looking menus over the years, which show clear dedication by the authoring team and a love of the material. But far more often I see menus like the one on this disc, which look like the design team was given a budget of precisely five quid to get the job done.
What can I say? To call these menus mediocre would be kind. For the most part comprised of static pages with an oversized logo accompanied by tiny selection text, the fact that they all default to widescreen only helps to make the transition to the 4:3 concert footage even more jarring. Menu access times are slow and each is accompanied by a standard 'swirl' transition effect that I suppose is meant to make us think it's all slightly psychedelic, man. But their ugliness pales in comparison with their bad design. For example, the first time you arrive at the 'song selection' menu, I suspect that you, like me, will sit there stumped for 30 seconds or so trying to figure out why only 7 songs are listed, and how to get at the remaining 14 when there is no option labelled 'next page', 'more songs', 'forward', etc.
That rant aside, at least Warner bothered to put a handful of special features on this disc. What will no doubt constitute the meatiest extras for die-hard fans are the two interviews with Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, the former about eight minutes long whilst the latter clocks in at fourteen. Both are interesting enough, at least for someone like me to whom this is all new information. I personally found Pete's segment to be slightly more engaging than Roger's, but both cover similar ground... the most notable intersection point of course being John Entwistle's death and how this has affected the band.
The last official special feature is an art gallery containing 25 drawings by John Entwistle. Consisting mostly of black-and-white sketches depicting himself, other members of The Who, and a variety of famous faces from the rock n' roll music scene, they may be of dubious artistic merit, but the guy could clearly draw a lot better than I can. Should be of interest to fans.
Undocumented is a little 'easter egg' that, considering the poor menu design and relatively few extras on this DVD, should have just been placed on the 'special features' menu for all to see. It's pretty easy to locate... in fact, you'll almost certainly run across it as you flail about trying to find the 'missing songs' on the 'song selection' sub-menu. But just in case you don't, all you have to do is tap the left button on your DVD remote and select the yellow symbol on the T-shirt; this will immediately start playing an audio interview with Pete Townshend recorded at Oceanic Studios in 2004. Unfortunately all he talks about is which guitars and amplifiers he's favoured using over the years, which is going to seem quite dry unless you're a fan who also happens to play guitar.
Oh, on a side-note, the 'language selection' menu might list the available subtitles as English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, but don't get your hopes up too high... in reality the concert audio is only subbed in English. However, the two interview segments (but not, mind you, the 'easter egg') do offer subtitles in all six languages, so go figure.
Reviewing this title has been an interesting experience for me. While I've never seen much point in concert DVDs, after watching this one (admittedly, probably not a prime example of the format) I can in fact understand the appeal, and was personally surprised at how successful a Dolby 5.1 soundtrack can be at 'putting you in the crowd'. However, even if The Who - Live in Boston represents only an average offering in this genre, I don't see myself running out to investigate the DVD releases of my fave bands. The fact is, there's something a little depressing about watching a concert on DVD when you know how much better it would have been to have actually been physically present. So while this release makes for decent enough watching, I'm not sure if it will satisfy die-hard fans of The Who.