The distinguishing characteristic between casual fans of the Who and their diehard devotees is how much they know about the saga of Pete Townshend’s “Lifehouse” Project. A casual Who fan might simply think of Who’s Next as the band’s best album — and indeed one of the most brilliant rock albums ever produced — but a diehard can tell you a long and quite dramatic story about how the songs on that 1971 masterpiece were originally written for the high-concept “Lifehouse,” which Townshend first envisioned thirty years ago as a rock opera follow-up to Tommy. And it was those diehards who packed into Townshend’s two “Lifehouse” shows this weekend, at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre. They came ready to see their hero triumphantly realize three decades of storm and stress, and they weren’t disappointed.
Townshend has always sworn that the idea behind “Lifehouse” was relatively simple, even as his articulations of it over the years have been somewhat confusing. The nuts and bolts of it is a story about a futuristic society where everyone lives indoors and experiences a “virtual reality” (a truly visionary idea thirty years ago!) via their attachment to a system known as “The Grid,” a concept which many think was predictive of the Internet. A young rebel persuades members of the society to attend a real live event — a rock show, of course — held at a theatre known as the Lifehouse. There, the band’s ability to communicate with the audience replaces the role of the Grid and constitutes a powerful spiritual involvement with the world.
It was Townshend’s hope that the Lifehouse story would be made into a film, and after Universal Pictures dropped their funding of the project, Townshend lapsed into a serious depression. Shortly thereafter, the Who wound up recording several key “Lifehouse” pieces — including “Baba O’Riley,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Bargain” — for Who’s Next.
Townshend never really abandoned “Lifehouse,” though, and over the years continued to write new songs and made a couple more attempts to get it to the big screen. Fast forward to December 1999, when the BBC broadcasted a radio play of “Lifehouse,” adapted by Jeff Young from Townshend’s original idea. It was the first real headway Townshend had made in bringing “Lifehouse” to life. More exciting still was the news that Townshend was readying a six-CD box set, The Lifehouse Chronicles — just released via his Web site www.eelpie.com — full of demo versions of “Lifehouse” songs, live recordings, orchestral pieces, as well as the radio play.
But, because the real meat of the project was always the idea that performance could be a spiritual experience, the most important piece in the puzzle came this past weekend, when Townshend took the stage and played two and a half hours worth of “Lifehouse” material to sold-out crowds.
Love may not be for keeping, but you wouldn’t have known it sitting amid the throngs of affectionate Townshend lovers at the Sadler’s Wells. The audience could barely contain their enthusiasm and, the instant he walked onto the stage at Friday night’s opening performance, one zealot howled “Pete, we loooove you!” Even when Townshend and his band flubbed their parts — starting a couple songs over from the beginning — the audience’s support was unrelenting, and they clapped along and hollered loving approbations. From where I was sitting on Saturday, I could see the back of John Entwhistle’s noggin, and he seemed to be digging it, too.
The crowd’s approval may have been unconditional, but it certainly wasn’t unjustified. Backed by both the London Chamber Orchestra and a band of crack musos — keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick, percussionist Jody Linscott, bassist Chucho Merchan, guitarist Phil Palmer, harmonica player Peter Hope-Evans — Townshend offered a brilliant set, full of emotion and resounding proof that the man can still play the fuck out of his guitar.
He played only acoustic guitar, having said at a small Q&A session a couple days earlier that if he got his mitts on an electric, he would become too absorbed in his instrument to keep control over the proceedings. But even without the extra electric oomph, his playing was as amazing as ever, as he gave himself room at the end of a couple songs to riff with complete abandon. And even with the bright stage lights shining on his balding dome, Townshend looked young and vibrant as ever, swaying with his acoustic and stomping his feet and even launching into a momentary windmill during Saturday night’s performance of “Who Are You.”
Townshend’s guitar-god status has never been in question, thus the real treat was to hear what a goosebump-raiser he is as a singer. In fact, considering that his voice has nearly the same timbre as Roger Daltrey’s, with even more soul and subtlety, you’ve got to wonder why he never took over the mic more often during his Who days.
Aside from a couple of orchestral numbers — each beautiful, but largely a distraction from the rock & roll main event — Townshend’s set consisted mostly of familiar favorites like “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Goin’ Mobile,” “Baba O’Riley” (played as both a straight-up rock number and as an elaborate orchestral piece), “In Tune,” “Pure and Easy” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Because the orchestra joined in on some of these songs, they occasionally sounded a bit more VH1-ready than the classic Who versions. My date on Friday night dared to utter the name “Phil Collins” in describing the event; I was aghast, but not in complete disagreement. But the fact remains that as soon as those first synth bits kicked in on “Baba” and “Fooled,” they still induced the same visceral reaction they always have. And the band really did rock out with admirable zest, particularly Linscott, whose assortment of percussive devices seemed never-ending.
There were a few weak spots in the production, particularly the staid backing vocals and uninspired guitar work by Palmer that so paled by comparison to Townshend’s playing that it was somewhat embarrassing. (“No, Phil, this is how you do it,” you kept hoping Townshend would say.) Yet the sense that we were all witnessing Townshend’s realization of a project that has consumed him for more than half his life made it easy to ignore those flaws.
Townshend had his most glorious moments during “Bargain,” and a brand new song called “Can You Help the One You Really Love?” He introduced the former by explaining — in the kind of relaxed manner that characterized most of his between-song chatter — that in the course of revisiting his “Lifehouse” demos, he had found that while some songs would benefit from further musical elaboration, others were impossible to better. So, for “Bargain,” he had the tape of his guitar part from a thirty-year-old demo piped through the speakers, and the band played along with it. The man was playing along with himself! It was a truly inspiring — if somewhat chilling — moment, and listening to the riffs floating from those speakers, you had to agree with his appraisal that this was as good as it gets.
The show closer, “Can You Help the One You Really Love?,” is Townshend’s latest tune; so new, in fact, that he said he’s still making it up as he goes along. It was the perfect ending to the performance: Townshend standing there with his acoustic, playing without accompaniment for the first time all night. Sounding a bit like a Bob Dylan tune, with its repetitive lyrics and rhythmical vocal melody, the song is raw and beautiful — proof that while Roger Daltrey and John Entwhistle wait in breathless anticipation to see if Townshend will crank out some new Who songs for them to parlay into a minor fortune, Pete will continue to pick up his guitar and play, just like yesterday.