The Vegas Job was originally titled The Who: 20th Anniversary Reunion Concert, until someone at Passport Video’s braintrust realized that the band’s October 29, 1999 concert marked the 20th anniversary of nothing in particular (the last time the band had played as a five-piece, yawn…) and represented only the most casual of reunions, since the band had been touring Quadrophenia as recently as three years before.
That sort of grandiosity—combined with a basic misunderstanding of everything the Who represents—is the main problem with this bombastic yet curiously empty DVD. There are occasional, widely separated flashes of performance brilliance here—and how could there not be in a band that included one of the best rock guitarists ever and the absolute king of rock bassists?—but for the most part it’s a tepid stew of arena-dumbed-down greatest hits. Yes, they play “Pinball Wizard”, “Magic Bus”, “Baba O’Reilly”, and finally, in the encore, “My Generation”.
Yes, the light show is elaborate, the sound system good, and the crowd appreciative. But just try to find a spark of passion or spontaneity here. When Townshend finishes the last resounding chord from set-closing “My Generation”, he raises his red Stratocaster over his head triumphantly, grins, and for a minute you wonder if it will come crashing down on the stage. But then, Townshend, who probably owns a houseful of guitars at this late date, then sets his instrument carefully on the stand. The gale force of destructive rock energy that once pushed this band forward has slackened to a slight breeze, one that can barely push a windmill.
The set starts with a rough version of “Can’t Explain”, the band’s first-ever single, released in 1965. But it’s been a long time in the closet; the beat drags (that’s Ringo’s kid Zack on drums), and the harmonies seem uncertain. The camera focuses relentlessly on Roger Daltrey, who is doing a Vegas-appropriate approximation of Tom Jones, all show man but very little rock star. Someone ought to have told the film crew that Daltrey is the least interesting element in the band, but no one did. The lens sticks on him like a leach; occasionally, you’ll see a bit of Townshend’s hand in the corner of the frame or a shot of Starkey’s head over the mountain of tom toms, but it’s mostly Roger, Roger, Roger.
The band gains confidence, though, as it tears into “Substitute”, the proto-punk anthem that was covered by the Sex Pistols and Patti Smith. With this song, you begin to realize that, somewhere, off camera, Townshend remains a threat, and that unannounced, someone (it turns out to be John Burdick) is playing a very fine bit of organ. With “Anyway Anyhow”, the Who’s hard rock sound begins to gel, with Townshend bringing out the first of his slashing ba-da-dah power chords over a crescendo of pounding drums, Entwhistle still locked inside himself, only his hands moving incessantly over the neck of his bass. “It’s been a bloody long time since we played that,” says Townshend as the piece closes and he seems, for the first time in the concert, to be enjoying himself.
There’s fuck-all on offer from the Who’s greatest album, The Who Sell Out, but the band makes heavy use of Tommy, delivering “Pinball Wizard”, then “See Me/Feel Me” in sequence. This latter song gets an acoustic treatment, its early chords and piano runs framed with blue lights, before surging into the faster “listening to you” section. Still, the band’s not wholly together, even here, and the sound turns rough as it accelerates. Again the cameraman demonstrates that he doesn’t understand the Who at all, opting to linger on Daltrey when, just off to the side, Entwhistle is accomplishing miraculously fast and skilled runs and pops and slaps on his bass. The lighting is also a problem, with flashes of stage lights occasionally burning right through the screen image, and every once in a while the face on the screen (Daltrey inevitably) threatens to break into pixels. Weird, considering how huge the concert obviously was and how much money was at stake, that they didn’t think harder about ensuring quality photography.
Then, the main lights dim and we hear the keyboard intro to “Baba O’Reilly”, Townshend pausing for a long drink during the downtime. (Actually it’s amazing how many of the distinctive parts in this very guitar-centric band are actually played on keyboard—Entwhistle again on the record, by the way.) If you’ve seen the excellent The Kids Are All Right DVD, you’ve already experienced a very fiery rendition of this quintessential Who song; this one is good—it’s a tough song to ruin—but nowhere near as stunning as the earlier version.
Then, finally, we arrive at “My Wife”, an Entwhistle-penned song that finally wakes the band up to something like it’s old fury. Entwhistle is monstrously good here, both hands rushing up and down the bass neck in constant motion, his picking hand pulling bass strings out an inch or so over the bridge for that cut-through-everything pop sound that, once you hear it, becomes an essential element in nearly every Who song. Townshend is on fire here, too; in fact, the whole band is temporarily sucked into a jamming, rocking frenzy that outclasses everything so far on the record.
From this peak, they back down a bit, with a pretty acoustic rendering of “Behind Blue Eyes”, all celtic lilt and acoustic folk picking at the start. Then as all Who songs do, the piece picks up speed, drums and crashing power chords, leading into the calcified, late-period strut of “Who Are You”, with its altered guitar sounds and f-bomb chorus. Townsend ends the cut with blood on his shirt and a smile on his face. Surely he’s not thrilled about being a nostalgia act in Vegas, either. Then it’s on to a long, blues-vamping rendition of “Magic Bus” and a loose and triumphant “We Won’t Get Fooled Again”. The encore heads blessedly back into the Who’s ‘60s catalog, with a Mersey-beated, tightly harmonized “The Kids Are All Right” and finally “My Generation”. Here it might seem obligatory to say something about how the band has reneged on its promise, has in fact gotten old before most of its members have died, but the songs are too much fun, ending in an incendiary meltdown of feedback and frenzy.
The bonus materials are really dreadful, though. Worst of all is a Vegas-style crowd interview piece by a slimy, smarmy MC, where he breathlessly informs us that one billion people could “potentially” view this concert on the internet (yes, roughly 20 percent of the human race), that earlier in the day Lee Ann Rimes and KISS have played here, and that just a week ago, Mike Tyson fought in the same arena. Then he plunges into the audience to ask people for memories of the Who. The lowlight of this very discouraging segment comes early on when a young woman says that she first heard the Who while giving birth to her son some 19 months ago. (This is in 1999, remember; she’s not exactly a long-time fan, and anyway, who listens to new music during labor?) The MC persuades her to get down on the floor and reenact the birth, legs spread, as onlookers sing a song from Tommy. It is possibly the most degrading thing I’ve ever seen on a music video, and hell, I’ve seen Van Halen videos.
Other bonus materials include unenlightening interviews with Daltrey and Entwhistle, the latter hastily overlaid with the text “1945-2002” for sentimental value. There’s really not much to learn here. They both seem like men about to punch in to a job they don’t really care very much about. Townshend wisely stays off camera.
The Who is a great rock ‘n’ roll band, and especially a great live band. If you want to hear them at their peak, check out Live at Leeds, maybe the best concert recording ever. If you insist on pictures, The Kids Are All Right will do nicely, too. Committed fans—completists especially—may find things to enjoy in The Vegas Job. Just stay away from the bonus features.
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Author’s note: The review copy of The Vegas Job came in a plain brown envelope with no accompanying press materials. It was, in fact, titled The Who: 20th Anniversary Concert, so it was only after some internet research that I determined it had been renamed The Vegas Job. What I did not learn until after publication was that the concert had, in fact, been a notorious hoax. Here’s what Townshend had to say about it on his web site:
” ‘The Vegas Job’ is pure rock ‘n’ roll on stage with a behind-the-scenes story that reads like a Hollywood movie script. 1999 was the time of the high-flying Internet-craze and companies were going to unusual measures to gain the attention of the public. One Internet Company, Pixelon.com, claimed it had invented a revolutionary method to deliver television-like images to the computer screens of anyone in the world with an Internet connection. To show off its technology, Pixelon.com rented out the entire MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada and threw a $16,000,000 party that was headed by The Who and included such world famous performers as Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, KISS, Faith Hill, The Dixie Chicks, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Sugar Ray, LeAnn Rimes and Chely Wright.
“After the concert however, it was discovered that Pixelon.com’s revolutionary technology was bogus. The concert that was supposed to have been seen by an audience of one billion around the world had been seen only by those lucky fans in attendance.”