Hours before VH1's Rock Honors tribute concert for the Who, the word backstage was that Dave Grohl had completely blown out his voice. The Foo Fighters were scheduled to open the show – the bill also included the Flaming Lips, Pearl Jam and Incubus – but Grohl was in bad enough shape that he asked Supergrass front-man Gaz, Coombes to pinch-hit for him. All the more impressive, then, when Grohl took the mike for the very first performance of the evening, wailing through his ache on "Young Man Blues" – a song that could shred even the healthiest of throats. Grohl's passion for the material set the tone for an evening that allowed some of the Who's biggest musician fans to geek out. Says Eddie Vedder, "These guys changed my whole world. They are a big part of why I get to do what I do, and I came out all the better for it."
Accompanied by a 10-piece orchestra, Pearl Jam offered a goose-bump-raising version of "Love, Reign O'er Me," and made what the Who did sonically in the early Seventies and Pearl Jam did in the early Nineties feel like much closer kin than the age difference would imply. "That time was like a peak for rock & roll bands," says Vedder, a longtime friend of the Who's Pete Townshend. "The arrangements and the maturity really reached a high level."
Another of Townshend's favorite bands, the Flaming Lips, did a medley of Tommy songs – including "Sparks" and "See Me, Feel Me." "Nobody knows this, but we did a Tommy medley back in 1986," says Lips singer Wayne Coyne. "We were going on tour, we were like, 'We should play something cool, since no one will know our songs anyway.' Every night someone would come up and go, 'I like those new songs. You oughta record those.'"
Between sets, Adam Sandler applied his weird falsetto to an affectionate sendup of "Magic Bus"; Tenacious D played "Squeeze Box," accompanied by a ribald animated video; and The Office's Rainn Wilson took the stage dressed like Elton John in the Tommy movie. "Tonight, I feel like the love child of John Bonham and Chrissie Hynde," Wilson said before the show. "I may be dressed like a weird, bloated English schoolboy, but I am capable of rocking."
During the second half of the show, Townshend, Roger Daltrey and their touring band – bassist Pino Palladino, drummer Zak Starkey, guitarist Simon Townshend and keyboard player John "Rabbit" Bundrick – set the room on fire with hits including "Won't Get Fooled Again," "My Generation" and "Who Are You." "This was our first show for a year or so, so I was rusty on guitar," Townshend says. "I have been playing piano since last July, and only acoustic guitar on the sofa while watching episodes of Medium or Boston Legal, as my way of remembering America. Electric guitar and arm-swinging is not what I do between dog walks and arthritis."
But ultimately, Townshend says he left the event gratified to have connected with the Who's fans – the rock stars, celebrities and regular ol' ticket-holders alike – in the way an artist can "when the audience truly take possession of a part of your work.
"In the end, I enjoyed it," Townshend adds. "And I was grateful to have three great bands like the Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam and the Flaming Lips on the show. I only heard Pearl Jam from my trailer dressing room, and they sounded amazing. Eddie seems to be very shiny these days. To think he nearly quit in 1993 and went back to some surfing beach. Lucky he came to speak to Uncle Pete. I told him, 'Submit.'"
This story is from the August 7th, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.