When the Who's "Live at Leeds" was first released, some 25 years ago, it was greeted with equal measures of enthusiasm and disappointment. Although both fans and critics were eager to hail it as one of the greatest live rock performances on record, most added that, good as it was, listening to the album wasn't quite the same as being there.
Why not? For one thing, the original album was a mere 45 minutes long, whereas the actual concert clocked in at two hours and 15 minutes. For another, though the actual show included a complete performance of "Tommy," the album touched on the rock opera only once, when "My Generation" detoured into some random quotes from the work.
But the biggest problem with "Live at Leeds" was that it came across less as a document of the event than as another Who album -- that is, a recording in which the emphasis was as much on the material as on the playing. And as anyone who caught the Who back then can attest, the real thrill of seeing the band live was reveling in the almost telepathic interplay between the four band members.
Fortunately, that's precisely what comes through in the newly remastered and expanded reissue of "Live at Leeds" (MCA 11215, arriving in stores today). True, it does omit most of "Tommy," offering only the "Amazing Journey/Sparks" sequence, but it offers more Who -- 14 songs instead of the original six, for 77 minutes of music -- and a far more vivid sense of what it was like to see that band live.
Just how "live" the album is becomes clear in the first few seconds, for we can actually hear the Who taking the stage and testing their instruments before charging into "Heaven and Hell." Although guitarist Pete Townshend told Rolling Stone at the time that "Heaven and Hell" had been omitted because it was technically deficient, all that means is that he played some bum notes here and there.
That doesn't affect the quality of the playing, though; if anything, those minor mistakes merely reflect the intensity of the band's instrumental attack. When Townshend charges into his solo, the interplay between his guitar, John Entwistle's bass and Keith Moon's drums rivals even the improvisatory gusto of Cream's live jams. By the time the tune ends, it's clear what made audiences mad for this band -- and what it lost by making songwriting the principal focus of its studio recordings.
For many fans, though, the best thing about this new "Live at Leeds" will be the way it brings the band members themselves to life. Not only do we hear all the introductions, but we hear how much fun the four of them were having, from the drolleries at the beginning of "A Quick One, While He's Away" to exchanges like the one before "Young Man Blues," in which Townshend mentions that he'd seen composer Mose Allison described as "a jazz sage" in some liner notes. "Quite what that means, I don't know," says Townshend, to which Moon replies, "It's a flavor of chicken." That was the kind of wit and whimsy fans expected of the Who then, and it helps make "Live at Leeds" the next best thing to having been there.
To hear excerpts from "Live at Leeds," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Code: 6159.