The Who, Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970, Blu-ray (2009)

Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment EVBRD 33325-9
Video: 1.78:1 widescreen for 16:9 color, 1080p HD
Audio: DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, English DD 5.1, PCM Stereo
Extras: Bonus tracks, Pete Townshend interview
Subtitles: Multiple options for interview content only
Length: 85 minutes
Rating: ****

The 1970 Isle of Wight Festival was something of an answer by the U.K. to the previous year’s gathering at Woodstock; it was, in fact, even larger than Woodstock, with more than 600,000 in attendance compared to Woodstock’s rather meager 400,000. And when the Who stepped on stage at 2 am on August 30, Academy Award-winning director Murray Lerner was there to capture what has become one of the band’s most memorable shows for posterity. This show has seen several releases on video, but this new Blu-ray from Eagle Rock offers this classic footage with both updated video and greatly improved audio. While far from perfect (the film was shot on 16mm mostly by hand-held cameras), the film offers a thrilling testament to the power of the band and the adulation of their nearly rabid fans who were obviously mesmerized throughout the show. The Who gave incredible live shows that really highlighted the band’s raw power. And while their many studio hits that still get significant airplay are timeless classics, they just don’t often display the kind of energy the Who were capable of in concert. A few grumblers have nitpicked that this Blu-ray release should have included more than just 85 minutes of the Who’s appearance at the three-day festival, and that this current release should have presented the footage in something more closely resembling the concert’s actual sequence. While I do appreciate their sentiments, I’m still mightily impressed with what Eagle Rock has given us here; it’s a remarkable document of the festival era that captures one of rocks’ legendary groups at their absolute peak.

The show’s a total blast to watch, and a real throwback to the hippie/sixties days. Daltrey and Townshend and company are all dressed in their classic concert attire; Roger Daltrey has his open-shirted, fringed jacket flying all over the place, while Pete Townshend sports his usual white coveralls. John Entwistle is attired in a skeleton suit and his usual stentorian approach to the show, solemnly and almost totally expressionless, plucking away at his bass. Pete Townshend is totally animated, as always – his classic “windmill” approach to playing the guitar is just a hoot to watch, but really makes me wonder how he made it all these years without a torn rotator cuff! But it’s not just all show (although a great measure of it was definitely theatrics, according to Townshend’s lengthy interview); Pete proves again and again throughout the show that he’s a truly soulful guitar player with a mastery of numerous styles. And while Keith Moon may not have shared his bandmates penchant for unusual attire, his magnificent and often fiery drumming proves that he was undoubtedly one of rock’s greatest drummers. Together, they plow through such classic hits from the Who’s set list of the era as “Young Man Blues,” “Water,” “Summertime Blues” and “My Generation.” The show continues with a 14 song sequence from their recently completed (and groundbreaking) rock opera Tommy.

From a technical standpoint, Eagle Rock has given us a real winner here. Of course, you have to take into consideration the fact that the source material dates from 1970’s hand-held 16mm, but it looks remarkably good on the big screen. The original appears to have been significantly cleaned up; I could see only occasional traces of dirt and blemishes, and while there is some grain present, it’s totally in keeping with a concert film of this vintage and provides no distraction whatsoever. The black levels are pretty consistently deep, and the image is generally quite sharp and reasonably detailed with mostly pretty good contrast. The really significant improvement in this Blu-ray release is in the audio content; the disc sports an all new DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack that’s a really marked improvement over all previous releases. John Entwistle’s bass and Keith Moon’s drums really benefited from the new surround mix, and Roger Daltrey’s vocals are nicely focused front and center. Pete Townshend personally supervised the new audio transfer.

The bonus materials are pretty limited here; the inclusion of the two bonus tracks, “Substitute” and “Naked Eye,” which were both excluded from the DVD release of this concert, are a welcome addition, but there are those who would have preferred that those songs (along with all the others on the disc) had been presented in their actual running order. At this point, I’m just glad they’re there. The only other bonus offering is a rather lengthy forty-minute interview with Pete Townshend; it’s both very interesting and simultaneously quite bizarre. It’s really hard to tell just how sincere Townshend’s being here; he starts the interview by telling filmmaker Murray Lerner (who conducted the interview) exactly how much he hated being part of the Who – a bunch of “yabbos” that he had absolutely nothing in common with – and how he despised the rock-and-roll lifestyle. He was an artist after all, and it was just incredulous to him that he actually allowed himself to drop out of art school to pursue such a miserable and unsatisfying profession. Sour grapes? Oh well, it’s really interesting stuff, anyway. This disc is very highly recommended – it’ll serve as a really thrilling reminder of just how great The Who were in their heyday.

TrackList:
Heaven and Hell; I Can’t Explain; Young Man Blues; I Don’t Even Know Myself; Water; Shakin’ All Over/Spoonful/Twist and Shout; Summertime Blues; My Generation; Magic Bus; 14 tracks from Tommy; two bonus tracks: Substitute and Naked Eye.

— Tom Gibbs