'Live at the Fillmore East 1968' Shows a Who That's Almost There Yet Already There

THE WHO IN 1975 / Photo: Jim Summaria (Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

This 1968 concert from the Who vaults reveals both a devastating live show and a revealing bit of history.

Live at the Fillmore East 1968
The Who


20 April 2018

It's hard to get excited about a new Who live release; it's hard not to get excited about a new Who live release. A dozen years since their last new studio album (though with regular teases of a mysterious Floss album), the band and their people continued to put out live discs and compilations, more or less sustaining fans, but sometimes drifting toward redundancy. Few bands, if any, have matched the ferocity of the Who on stage, but much officially released material has targeted a single era, starting in 1969 and continuing for a few years with live versions of Tommy and similar cuts rounding out the show (see Leeds, Hull, and Isle of Wight for starters). Other releases have captured either the big band sounds from tours in the 1980s or recent incarnations of the group. All of this music is quite stellar, but Live at the Fillmore East 1968 offers a surprisingly insightful moment in an overlooked period of the band, after they moved out of their R&B mod grooves and before they had fully developed the massive sound of the early 1970s. As such, fans will enjoy it as a historical document, but the real rewards come in simply going with the energy of the set.

Happily, the setlist hasn't yet solidified into that of the Leeds era. Some of the standard cuts are here, of course. "Summertime Blues", "Fortune Teller", and "Tattoo" open the show. Without Live at Leeds as a comparison point, these would come across as complete ragers. As it is, these show the band almost hitting its full sound, an amazing statement given that they would already be on the shortlist for the best live rock band in the world. "I Can't Explain" shows why. It holds all the pop sensibilities of the single, but the Who rough it up and turn in into something else for the stage. Guitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend has his chatty moments throughout the set (as he does), but the band never hesitates musically, running a sprint and a marathon at the same time.

The variations of the band's live standards are a treat, but the real joy of the first disc comes with the unexpected numbers. Along with "Summertime Blues", two other Eddie Cochrane numbers get the Who treatment. "My Way" turns into a beast. Drummer Keith Moon stays unexpectedly close to the beat, but his hammering approach matches the menace in singer Roger Daltrey's vocals. "C'mon Everybody" might the most unlikely number on the album. It doesn't roar like the rest of the disc, but it's an energetic look back at the roots of the Who.

The Who Sell Out gets some proper representation with a lengthy version of "Relax". Despite the song's title, the band has no intention of settling. It's an anxious number, with Townshend fidgety in his chordal riffing and Moon pushing the tempo. By the time the jam kicks in, the group's in full tumult, and bassist John Entwistle takes over as the most interesting performer for a considerable stretch (though I imagine both Townshend and the ghost of Moon would take issue with that). The band already displays one of its key strengths as a live act: the ability to increase and increase tension before blasting off somewhere unexpected, or backing off enough that the performance can move in a new, equally intense direction. When the band returns to the song proper, it's with appropriate thunder. Even hardcore Wholigans might be surprised to hear this intense a performance come out of "Relax".

The rest of the first disc pitches itself pretty much at "destroy", even as the band manages to play with its dynamics. There's no sense that they're constantly at 10, so everything's flattened out. There's even room for a little humor, as when Townshend plays the "Day Tripper" riff in the middle of a massive "Shakin' All Over" that meets or exceeds more famous versions of this cut. While the band hasn't quite established that 1970 sound, their reaching for it remains both amazing and energizing.

Disc two, consisting entirely of a 30-minute rendition of "My Generation" complicates matters. The Who have never been a proper jam band, and maybe 27 minutes of jamming sounded better in 1968 than it does 50 years later, but this stretch seems just a bit off, a little given to wandering energy. The solution would probably have been just to shorten it, or to add another song. The band's play with dynamics and with tension-and-release (done so well earlier in the show and on later live albums) works marginally well here, and some of the weirdness adds flavor and Entwistle's more prominent moments are wonderful.

What's captivating about the track, though, is its connection to what will follow it historically. The seeds for Tommy seem to be here. Townshend would begin talking about that concept album by summer 1968 (the Fillmore show was recorded on April 6), and recording would start in September. The musical roots of the album stretch back at least to Sell Out's "Rael", however. The long jam to close this concert feels like a bridge between the two albums. The Who never turn toward that pretty riff that connects "Rael" to "Sparks" from Tommy, but at moments they turn toward not only toward the rhythm guitar of "Overture" but also to the live approach they'd later take to "Sparks". At 1968, it's not yet the finished and unforgettable piece that it would become, but the potency already comes to the fore, and the sort of give-and-take used in "Relax" works well. It's that one dramatic moment away from the iconic marvel it would be even a year a later.

That combination of astonishing music and nerd-centric revelations makes Live at the Fillmore East 1968 a continuing treat. Had this record been released in its time, it might have felt like the statement that Leeds and every other show was catching up to. Coming decades later from the vaults, it's valuable as a historical artifact, but even more worthy as a devastating concert in itself, inevitable closing guitar-smashing and all.





Dancing in the Street: Our 25 Favorite Motown Singles

Detroit's Motown Records will forever be important as both a hit factory and an African American-owned label that achieved massive mainstream success and influence. We select our 25 favorite singles from the "Sound of Young America".


The Durutti Column's 'Vini Reilly' Is the Post-Punk's Band's Definitive Statement

Mancunian guitarist/texturalist Vini Reilly parlayed the momentum from his famous Morrissey collaboration into an essential, definitive statement for the Durutti Column.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

What Will Come? COVID-19 and the Politics of Economic Depression

The financial crash of 2008-2010 reemphasized that traumatic economic shifts drive political change, so what might we imagine — or fear — will emerge from the COVID-19 depression?


Datura4 Take Us Down the "West Coast Highway Cosmic" (premiere)

Australia's Datura4 deliver a highway anthem for a new generation with "West Coast Highway Cosmic". Take a trip without leaving the couch.


Teddy Thompson Sings About Love on 'Heartbreaker Please'

Teddy Thompson's Heartbreaker Please raises one's spirits by accepting the end as a new beginning. He's re-joining the world and out looking for love.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Little Protests Everywhere

Wherever you are, let's invite our neighbors not to look away from police violence against African Americans and others. Let's encourage them not to forget about George Floyd and so many before him.


Carey Mercer's New Band Soft Plastics Score Big with Debut '5 Dreams'

Two years after Frog Eyes dissolved, Carey Mercer is back with a new band, Soft Plastics. 5 Dreams and Mercer's surreal sense of incongruity should be welcomed with open arms and open ears.


Sondre Lerche Rewards 'Patience' with Clever and Sophisticated Indie Pop

Patience joins its predecessors, Please and Pleasure, to form a loose trilogy that stands as the finest work of Sondre Lerche's career.


Ruben Fleischer's 'Venom' Has No Bite

Ruben Fleischer's toothless antihero film, Venom is like a blockbuster from 15 years earlier: one-dimensional, loose plot, inconsistent tone, and packaged in the least-offensive, most mass appeal way possible. Sigh.


Cordelia Strube's 'Misconduct of the Heart' Palpitates with Dysfunction

Cordelia Strube's 11th novel, Misconduct of the Heart, depicts trauma survivors in a form that's compelling but difficult to digest.


Reaching For the Vibe: Sonic Boom Fears for the Planet on 'All Things Being Equal'

Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff. On his first solo album in 30 years, he urges us all to take our foot off the gas pedal.


Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late '40s and '50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.