Ann Powers, Times Staff Writer
THE World Wide Web sure opens doors for musicians. Consider the bunch who brought their webcast, "In the Attic," to the Hotel Café on Tuesday. This crew commandeered the club for more than three hours, holding a sweaty audience in thrall even when the harmonies failed and the guitars went out of tune. Every song and rambling anecdote was greeted with joy by the crowd. The whole affair proved how much pop fans prefer the cozy Web-fueled pop scene to the distanced spectacle of arena rock.
Of course, it helped that one of the night's performers, Pete Townshend of the Who, is as iconic as arena rockers get; that another, Billy Corgan, fulfilled a similar rock-god role for most of the 1990s; that a third, the man known as "E," is a local hero with an international cult; and a fourth, Minnie Driver, is not only a vocalist but a movie star.
The genial hostess of "In the Attic," singer-songwriter Rachel Fuller, is Townshend's companion, and the pair have been webcasting for about a year. Townshend's rocker brother Simon and Fuller's lifelong pal Mickey Cuthbert are regulars, joining in a musical and conversational round robin. In town for the Who's recent Hollywood Bowl run, the crew found a suitably intimate setting for the webcast at the tiny Hotel Café.
Each participant played three to six songs, with others often jumping up to assist. Townshend packed a career history into his few numbers, reaching for Who obscurities, new songs and classics. He poked fun at the absent Roger Daltrey — "I don't love him. Take that away, put it in the press and let him respond," he deadpanned before expressing affection for the Who's singer — and told a very dirty story about the band, a tour bus, a female passenger and a snow-clogged Canadian freeway.
Townshend left his stardust back at the Bowl and took his performance easy. "I've given myself permission to be content," he said. The 31-year-old Fuller is a big reason why — cracking jokes, nimbly playing piano and singing in a soothing soprano, she seemed a perfect match for the erudite 61-year-old rocker, despite their age difference. When they weren't sparring, the two harmonized beautifully.
Townshend's chosen scions tried to be jovial too, but both seemed slightly tense. E couldn't stop teasing his elder, whom he called "my opening act"; but then, he's an edgy guy. Townshend seemed only charmed by E's self-assurance, calling him a "genius" and dancing in his seat during such Eels favorites as "Railroad Man" and "Jeannie's Diary," and the two shared bouncy vocals on Townshend's "Let My Love Open the Door."
Corgan (also a genius, saith Pete) had more reason to be wary. The Smashing Pumpkins chief hasn't played much since his 2005 solo outing, "The Future Embrace," and his band's reunion has yet to be fully accomplished. His patter fell flat, but his songs — all apparently new — felt fresh and refined. His reedy voice was rested and limber; he grew calmer with each offering, and as he and Townshend bellowed their way through Thunderclap Newman's "Something In the Air," he even raised a fist in a rocker's salute.
The other performers, even Driver, couldn't benefit from the thrill that comes from seeing a rock luminary up close and casual. They got by on charisma, decent material and a little help from their friends. Driver's sultry vocals blended California and Carnaby Street cool. Simon Townshend delivered his arty, catchy songs with a New Waver's flair. Mickey Cuthbert, the ruffian of the bunch, simply seemed delighted to share his folksy pub rock.
At evening's end, all joined in on a rousing version of "I'm One," from the Who's "Quadrophenia." Fuller announced that the program — soon to be available on www.intheattic.tv — was "now officially longer than a Who show." It wasn't quite as epic as Townshend's day job. But it offered many pleasures, like a great night in with friends.