Guest review: The Who Live at Hull 1970

By Bob Bennett

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Note: Bob Bennett is a long-time friend and fellow Who fanatic who shared a few thoughts with me in an email regarding his first spin of The Who Live at Hull 1970, a 2-CD set that was released in 2012 (one that I’d missed too, for some reason). Never one to let a damn fine review go to waste, I asked him if he’d mind terribly if I passed it along.  -D.H.

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Summary: A muscular performance featuring The Who at the peak of their talent recorded on the night after the stellar Live at Leeds album.

Airplane pilots sometimes describe minimizing the possibility of a chain of events happening as avoiding the holes lining up in overlapping slices of Swiss cheese – the more layers, the more unlikely it is that the holes in the cheese line up.

If you take all of the variables of a live rock performance (tempo, acoustics, song selection, miking, individual band member performance, recording production etc. ) and layer them as holey slices of cheese they will occasionally line up – maybe just for a few bars or even one perfect song.

It is these moments that rock fans cherish, and usually they are lost to the universe as they emanate from sweaty taverns or crowded theaters packed with fans.   The Who Live At Leeds is one of those rare moments where an entire performance was perfect and the captured result is almost a  religious experience.

Live At Hull was recorded 80 km to the East of Leeds; apparently as a backup to the performance the night before.  It is not a true bootleg.  It features The Who at the top of their game, with very few effects and no keyboards.  And while brilliant in many spots, it does not match the unattainable heights of Live At Leeds.

The opening song is a thunderous performance of Entwhistle’s “Heaven and Hell” that features Keith Moon playing furiously with a fusillade of almost incomprehensible fills.  It is an astonishing wall of sound that initially echoes the staggering gig of the previous night but then lapses into lower quality jamming.  The song is all the more poignant for the now prescient lyrics that foretold John’s death many years later.   If you are a Keith Moon fan, this opening song is worth buying the album for.

There are many other flashes to of brilliance to be enjoyed, particularly in unexpected variations of Pete Townshend’s guitar work.  But alas, the generous 2-CD recording (which includes all of Tommy on the 2nd disc) is brought to earth by a strange mix that at times buries the right side vocals and short shrifts the bassline unless you crank the volume.

The drums are mixed up front as are Roger’s vocals.  So clear is Roger’s voice that I understood the lyrics in several spots for the 1st time. It sounds as if Pete had 2 mics and would travel from one to another (one with distinctly higher volume).   Keith’s and John’s vocals sound distant — as does the crowd.

Pete’s upbeat banter from Live at Leeds (“Assemble the musicians!”  “Rock otter” “Thomas”) is gone though we do get some thoughtful song intros by Roger before they play covers from other artists.  Keith’s playing on disc 2 is at times a bit uninspired — as if he was tiring or perhaps a bit bored with Tommy (“Amazing Journey” and “Sparks” did have great drumming).

The backup vocals (rarely a strong point of The Who) are often wobbly.  One song at the end of Disc 1, “My Generation”, is a near disaster, turning into a self-indulgent jam by Pete with many false endings as the rest of the band gamely follows along for 15 minutes.

Overall, it is a muscular, workman-like performance, very physical, that makes me marvel at the sheer effort that The Who put pleasing their audiences such as this one; likely composed of factory workers and dock workers in the hard scrabble port city of Kingston upon Hull.

The experience of listening to Live at Hull is a bit disconcerting.  It is like meeting the twin brother of a friend that you did not know had a twin at all.  The tone of the guitars, the tuning of the drums, the sound of the gong and the tenor of the voices are identical to that on Live at Leeds.  Some of the songs are near note perfect copies on both nights (causing me to toss my assumption that all of Keith’s drumming was pure spontaneity).  Gradually one realizes that the albums are fraternal, not identical twins.  And in this case, one of the “twin brothers” gave a once-in-a-lifetime performance …in Leeds.

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