Everything about the Who has always been extra-large: sounds, ideas, personality, explosions. Paying tribute to all that isn’t easy, but the VH1 Rock Honors: The Who concert on Saturday in Los Angeles captured a bit of that legacy in a night of stirring Who songs performed by Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, Flaming Lips, Incubus, Tenacious D and the veteran band itself, delivering songs with all the power and intelligence fans have come to know.
On a stage painted the Union Jack colors of red, white and blue in UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, the two-hour concert was split between a rousing show-closing performance by the Who and some painfully brief sets by the night’s younger generation of rockers. The concert (to be broadcast Thursday on VH1) began with a series of taped testimonials from rockers young and old, from Slash, Sting and the Clash’s Mick Jones to Coldplay and Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy, but then it was quickly on to the live music.
The Foo Fighters stirred up bluesy thrash on “Young Man Blues,” as a bearded Dave Grohl slashed at a blue electric guitar, and guitarist Chris Shiflet was dressed in a Mod suit and tie. The Foos were joined by singer Gaz Coombes of Supergrass, grinning in his mustache and safari hat, for an explosive “Bargain,” while stumbling over a verse or two. Foos drummer Taylor Hawkins stepped in on vocals for a few lyrics, blond hair covering his face, singing the fragile, emotional lines: “In life one and one don’t make two, one and one make one …”
The spotlight turned to comic-actor Rainn Wilson (from The Office), leaning against a pinball machine and dressed in the big boots and glitter of Elton John from the 1975 film version of Tommy. He introduced the Flaming Lips and their Tommy medley, as leader Wayne Coyne stood in his giant Space Bubble, rolling and tumbling over the front rows, and the band ignited a rocking, shimmering “Sparks.” Coyne stepped out of the bubble to sing “See Me, Feel Me” and a section of “Pinball Wizard” while swinging his mallet at a gong in crazed windmill strokes. As the medley crashed to a finish with “I’m Free,” drummer Kliph Scurlock kicked over his orange kit, Keith Moon-style.
Incubus rocked up a psychedelic “I Can See For Miles” and a sluggish “I Can’t Explain.” Jack Black and Kyle Gass of Tenacious D delivered an appropriately bawdy and joyous “Squeeze Box,” accompanied by a suggestive black-and-white cartoon. Gass looked like he was fresh off the couch in his baggy shorts and T-shirt, as Black announced, “It’s an honor to honor what I consider to be the greatest rock & roll band.” Black seemed about ready to smash his beloved acoustic guitar in the Who tradition, but instead kissed it tenderly as he left the stage.
Actor Sean Penn introduced Pearl Jam, a band with years of experience and devotion playing Who songs on the road. This time, the band brought a string section for a soaring “Love, Reign O’er Me,” an epic moment on a memorable night. They were followed by Adam Sandler, who performed joke lyrics set to the music of “Magic Bus,” his words a mixture of the playful and profane with the devotion of a true fan, singing of the missing drummer Moon: “You know he would have blown the roof off this show — 30 years later we still miss him so.”
Whatever frustration fans might have felt with the brief tribute sets probably evaporated from the Who’s first moments onstage, firing up the green lasers and “Baba O’Riley,” Roger Daltrey blowing harmonica as Pete Townshend slashed at his guitar with muscular windmill strokes. Other songs included “The Seeker” and an extra-heavy “Who Are You?” Midway through “You Better You Bet,” the Who suddenly stopped playing, and Daltrey announced, “Something is up with the sound up here. Shit happens.” Then, “We’ll start again,” followed by cheers and a stuttering “My Generation” and the classic rock anthem “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
“Us old farts have to have a breath now and again — just in case we keel over,” Daltrey joked at one point. But the Who rarely slowed down at all, until late in the set, when they stepped beyond their classic catalog to perform the closing ballad, “Tea and Theatre,” performed with Townshend and Daltrey alone onstage with acoustic guitars. When it was over, and Townshend walked over to put an arm around the singer, they took in the cheers and looked something like musical partners still, suggesting that after 44 years together, the Who’s story isn’t yet finished.
For complete coverage of VH1 Rock Honors, check back at rocknrolldiary.com on Thursday July 17th. Also look for Rolling Stone correspondent Jenny Eliscu on VH1’s broadcast at 9 PM ET this Thursday.