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Rachel Fuller, Pete Townshend and Friends @ Troubadour 11/7/08
Who fans in major cities have been trained to keep their ears very close to the ground when the band goes on tour these days, as Pete Townshend's partner, singer-songwriter Rachel Fuller, has found a unique way to keep herself occupied while tagging along: a live web program called In The Attic, in which Townshend and Fuller's invited guests get together for spontaneous acoustic jam collaborations, often involving someone's favorite rarely-performed Who song. They revived the program at the Troubadour on Friday, to promote the forthcoming In The Attic DVD release from Best Buy, and a handful of lucky fans got to witness a truly unique evening.
The program started in 2005 as a mix of talk-show and jam session between Fuller, her musical partner Mikey Cuthbert, Townshend, and any number of invited guests banging around in Fuller's attic. When the Who hit the road in 2006, they moved production to an airstream trailer which followed the group around the summer festival circuit, while in the US, Fuller took the show into nightclubs and dropped the chat-show portion. Since everybody loves the Who, she's had no trouble booking big-league guests anxious to trade licks with Pete, and some very memorable pair-ups have taken place as a result: Flaming Lips forcing Pete to play Baba O'Riley on a plastic toy guitar with a joystick; Townshend and Lou Reed duetting on White Light White Heat, Waiting For The Man and Pale Blue Eyes; J Mascis plugging in for a hair-straightening blast through See Me, Feel Me. The whole thing really does have the feel of a houseparty full of musicians, as the guitars come out and people are going "So who knows the words to Substitute?", and suddenly music starts happening. Even if a couple of lyrics get muffed, everybody's having a such great time, just sing the chorus extra-loud when it comes around again and all is forgiven.
Fuller's chosen guests - She And Him, Jakob Dylan, The Eels' Mark Everett and Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie - all performed admirably, alternating between original and cover tunes, each getting at least one number with their patron, and occasionally interacting with each other while they were at it. Zooey Deschanel of She And Him showed up in Gibbard's set to sing harmony on George Jones' She Thinks I Still Care, while Gibbard, Townshend and Everett performed a trio version of Let My Love Open The Door to close out the Eels' frontman's set. Everett apologized to Jakob Dylan for performing one of his dad's songs but pleaded, "I've been practicing this song all week, before I knew he was gone be here." Dylan, meanwhile, brought out Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell for a spirited version of the Wallflowers' Sixth Avenue Heartache.
But it was when Townshend took the stage that all eyebrows lifted up, because from his first appearance on stage, accompanying Fuller on the crystalline Sunrise, a ballad buried on the second side of The Who Sell Out, it was apparent that ANYTHING was possible. With Deschanel and M Ward, he did Blue, Red and Grey, another fan favorite that the 2008 touring version of the Who would never touch. Dylan chose The Kids Are Alright, which Townshend dedicated to their actual kids, "my three and his, what is it, four?". Gibbard traded verses on the other Who Sell Out chestnut of the evening, a lyrically spotty - "Who is it that can't cook?" "It's Linda innit?" "Oh yeah..." - but gleeful take on Mary Ann With The Shaky Hands.
For his own, closing set, Townshend dug deep. At this point, free from the responsibility of making his girlfriend's invited guests look good, he got off the stool and prowled the stage like that figure we've all seen a million times on TV, ready to fill up the biggest stages known to man. There is something that happens when Pete Townshend is on his game, and to witness it up close is no small thing. It's as if all the potential that the guitar could possibly hold is being displayed for you, right in front of your face. He doesn't always hit that point nowadays, but I'd swear for his three song solo set, he was riding about six inches above the ground as he rammed into The Acid Queen, Drowned and Won't Get Fooled Again and drew new blood from each one.
Fuller, perhaps in an over-the-top display of modesty and reserve, only performed one of her own numbers, the title track of her LP Cigarettes and Housework. This was a shame since we Yanks never get to see her do her thing. Here's hoping, if we get extremely lucky and they bring this production back to LA, that she'll carve out a bigger piece of the set for herself.
As the entire cast of characters gathered on stage for a final version of I'm One, despite being one of those cornball all-star finales like you'd see at the end of the Donny and Marie Show, it was actually quite touching. That's one of the all time great songs for disgruntled teenage creative types and as the mic got passed from person to person, each one sang their verse like it meant something, and looked like it too. Looking around the room, three hundred people with the same expression were singing it right back at them.