A couple of songs into The Who’s Tuesday night show at PNC Arena, Pete Townshend stepped up to the microphone to give the audience an inspirational pep talk. Acknowledging that there were probably at least a hundred kids in the crowd who already play a better guitar than him, Townshend lamented the fact that most of them would give it up when they reached the point where they weren’t improving.
“But,” Townshend said with a twinkle, “you don’t need to get any better. Look at me!”
The Who has always been a band that wore its flaws and limitations proudly – underdogs to the Rolling Stones’ “Greatest Band in the World” mystique. By contrast, The Who regards personal shortcomings less as obstacle than aesthetic.
Mostly, that comes down to the fury of Townshend’s guitar-playing, which seems to convey the frustration of being unable to reproduce what he hears in his head. That tension informs every note, and there’s no more satisfying sound in arena rock than Townshend windmilling his guitar into a full-on snarl.
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Tuesday’s show began with a fine opening set by journeywoman rocker Joan Jett, fresh off her induction into the Hall of Fame last weekend. At age 56, Jett still seems refreshingly unjaded as one of the most appealing true believers left in rock ’n’ roll. Hitting all her obligatory high points from “Bad Reputation” to “Crimson and Clover,” Jett’s 40-minute set told her story.
The woman loves rock ’n roll but hates herself for loving you, is what it comes down to (and of course she did both those songs, too). It’s kind of amazing that a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would still regularly play the first song they ever wrote; but Jett did just that with the Runaways tune “You Drive Me Wild,” which she said she wrote at age 16. God bless her.
As for the headliners, they wasted no time flashing the moves the crowd had come to see – Townshend with his guitar windmills and Roger Daltrey with the microphone twirl – as they opened with “I Can’t Explain.” This show was part of The Who’s ongoing 50-year-anniversary tour that began last year, with a 22-song set that was pretty much all money shots from start to finish. And if the most recent song dated from 1982, well, nobody was complaining.
“Here’s another old one,” Townshend quipped to begin 1967’s “Pictures of Lilly” before adding with a laugh, “They’re all (expletive) old!”
In terms of original members, The Who is down to the duo of Daltrey and Townshend, minus the iconic rhythm section of drummer Keith Moon (gone since 1978) and bassist John Entwistle (who died in 2002). Townshend and Daltrey brought along plenty of replacement ringers, an eight-piece band centered around longtime sidemen Pino Palladino on bass, ageless drummer Zak Starkey (whose father Ringo Starr was also just inducted into the Hall of Fame) and Townshend’s brother Simon on guitar.
They all played well and hit most of the marks, from Palladino handling the classic Entwistle bass solo on “My Generation” to Starkey skillfully standing in for Moon’s thunderous drumming. I particularly enjoyed the “Tommy” rock opera instrumental “Sparks,” on which Townshend and Moon used to race each other to the finish. Nowadays, it’s more of a guitar-drums call and response between Townshend and Starkey.
Yes, there was a ragged moment or two, the most grievous coming when Daltrey blew a verse on the show-closing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (a blow from which it never quite recovered). But “I Can See For Miles,” “Magic Bus,” “Who Are You,” “Join Together” and “Baba O’Riley” have become classic-rock clichés for a reason. They’re built to last, and they all still sounded great.
At the end, Daltrey bid the crowd farewell with, “Be happy, be healthy and be lucky!” Easy for him to say. Luck doesn't seem like it has much to do with why The Who is still worth seeing more than half a century on.