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VH1 Rock Honors: The Who

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“That was the toughest bunch of opening acts we’ve ever had to follow,” noted Roger Daltrey midway through the Who’s set on Saturday night at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. It can’t be easy having to follow your own best material, but they did so anyway, capping off a spectacular VH1 Rock Honors taping that began with heartfelt tributes from Incubus, Tenacious D, Foo Fighters, Flaming Lips and Pearl Jam.

The annual Rock Honors program has had mixed results with its pairings of legendary rock bands and the young upstarts they inspired. Last year’s set included the dubious pleasure of watching Nickelback play ZZ Top songs, to name but one unfortunate example. Some Who fans were skeptical that the crew of relative upstarts could deliver the goods in the same room as their idols. All of them have been professional entertainers for somewhere between ten and twenty-five years; but in rock, middle age is the new youth. While the Who more than held their own against their disciples, they did get a good run for their money.

Foo Fighters got things off to rolling start, firing up a feral "Young Man Blues" with hair a-flyin' and some great soloing from Dave Grohl. "Bargain", with last-minute guest Gaz Coombes of Supergrass taking vocal chores from an ailing Grohl, collapsed in a parade of mumbly lost lyrics but eventually re-aligned itself for a pretty rousing finish.

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This show marked the first time Flaming Lips have performed in LA without the benefit of backing tapes and giant video projections in over ten years. Their "Tommy" medley, which originated while they were touring punk dives in the mid-eighties as way to piss-off/blow the minds of Fear and Angry Samoans fans, was surprisingly straight-ahead for a band more given to over-the-top psychedelia in recent days. They didn't do anything elaborate, or even bother to string the different songs together especially well. But for a fan of the old, primitive Lips, it was a treat to see them bashing it out like teenage waste cases again. And, like a good laser show, the sight of Wayne Coyne riding his giant hamster ball across seas of humanity is always entertaining.

Incubus did competent run-throughs of the two sixties power-pop nuggets of the evening, "I Can See For Miles" and "I Can't Explain", and sounded heavily competent. Out of all of the cover band skills of the night, I bet these guys could play Vegas. (Foo Fighters could be the rockingest band on the bar scene in Poughkeepsie, and Flaming Lips would be doing weird stuff to amuse themselves that makes no sense to the audience, thus losing the gig). Even the guy who hollered out "Succubus!" as Incubus took the stage seemed mildly won over by the end, although later news reports that the band only learned the latter song earlier that afternoon are highly believable.

Tenacious D. had no punch line, no funny re-written lyrics, no indication that they are a "comedy" act of any sort, instead giving a spirited, straightforward reading of the Who's most rarely heard hit, mid-70s lite-FM chestnut "Squeeze Box".

Eddie Vedder has been one of Townshend's most outspoken disciples through the years, and it was no surprise that Pearl Jam came prepared, fresh off the road. But few were prepared for what a devastating cover band they can be when their heart's in it. They had a string section for "Love Reign O'er Me" and a horn trio for "The Real Me", but they may as well have saved themselves the fees for the extra players. This was all about big guitars and a big voice. The show had some appealingly roughshod moments, and some slickly professional ones, but here it finally had real grandeur. If this was the Battle of the Bands, to say nothing of "Who Night" on America's Got Talent, I have no doubt Pearl Jam would have taken it by a landslide.

Adam Sandler's intro to the main attraction was a beery rewrite of "Magic Bus". Sample lyric: That Keith Moon he had his charms/ played like he had eight fucking arms

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Having donated much of their classic repertoire to their guests, the Who themselves - tonight made up of Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey with their usual supporting players, Zak Starkey (drums), Pino Palladino (bass), John "Rabbit" Bundrick (keyboard) and Pete's bro Simon Townshend (guitar, vocals) - chose a curious nine-song set of what was left: the three big songs on "Who's Next", the eternal "Who Are You" (the best CSI theme performed that evening), and the 1965 proto-punk anthem "My Generation" were obvious, almost requisite choices. After that, the set list got a little strange. None of their other great 60s singles were played, nor any of the other songs from albums already claimed by the openers. Instead, we got two gentle acoustic numbers from the new album, 2006's "Endless Wire", as well as the obscure-ish 1970 single "The Seeker", and "You Better You Bet", their last American radio hit from 1981.

Bootleg evidence reveals that historically, these one-off shows that are set up in the middle of a long rest period rarely bring out the Who's best form, but tonight, from the back of the arena, they sounded mighty good. For the most part. There were fluffed lyrics and weak chord changes here and there, but strength of spirit carried them over it (except for "You Better You Bet" which trainwrecked completely due to PA failures and had to be re-started; we tried to act surprised for the cameras when they hit the opening notes a second time). Daltrey was in fine voice, clear and powerful for the duration. Pete seemed to enjoy hamming it up in front of his acolytes, coaxing more and more violent sounds from his amp, ready to show them whippersnappers how it's done. My Generation's closing jam got particularly unhinged, the best performance of the night for sheer, unscripted exuberance.

It'll make a heck of a TV program, I'm betting.

VH1 Rock Honors: The Who premieres Thursday, July 17 on VH1 and VH1 Classic, check local listings.

Also check out LAist's coverage of red carpet arrivals.

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Photo by Bob Thompson for LAist