Concert review: The Who provide rock crunch and plenty of hits at Gwinnett Center

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It wouldn't be a Who show without the Townshend windmill. Photo: Robb D. Cohen/www.RobbsPhotos.com.
The Who 1

The Who proved to be in fine form throughout their show, one of the first U.S. dates of the tour. Photo: Robb D. Cohen/www.RobbsPhotos.com.

BY MELISSA RUGGIERI

With a band such as The Who, you go for the insanely robust catalog.

Maybe Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend are playing these songs for the last time. Or maybe it’s another faux farewell. Does it even matter anymore?

But an ancillary benefit of witnessing these rock vets live is soaking in the aura of the humorously crabby Townshend, a guy as mercurial as he is genius, prone to random outbursts and odd tangents.

It’s only a bit more than a week into the U.S. launch of “The Who Hits 50!” tour – they hit Abu Dhabi and the U.K. at the end of 2014 – but Townshend is already at peak crankiness.

“What f****** key is this in?” he barked at the band before “Bargain.”

Earlier in Thursday’s show at The Arena at Gwinnett Center, Daltrey, in his stylish midnight blue button-down (or, eventually, button-open) and tinted shades, noted that when The Who first started playing the Atlanta area, “We used to go horse riding here. It used to be all countryside,” he said, in reference to the now-thriving metropolis of Duluth.

It wouldn't be a Who show without the Townshend windmill. Photo: Robb D. Cohen/www.RobbsPhotos.com.

It wouldn’t be a Who show without the Townshend windmill. Photo: Robb D. Cohen/www.RobbsPhotos.com.

Townshend interjected: “I’ve never been horse riding in Duluth.” He then continued, expressing his love of Bob Dylan and implying that he didn’t mind performing in Duluth because, “Dylan was born here.”

Well, yes, it was a Duluth. Just the one in Minnesota.

But hey, who is going to argue with one of the greatest musicians in rock history, even if at times the patter between him and Daltrey was reminiscent of those amusingly cantankerous Muppets, Waldorf and Statler?

The crowd – all but sold out except for a handful of seats – cheered mightily at the first arm rotation that signified Townshend’s patented windmill, which came during “The Seeker.”

The band – five musicians in addition to Daltrey and Townshend, including MVP drummer Zak Starkey, a member since 1994, and longtime aces Pino Palladino on bass and Townshend’s brother, Simon, on guitar – has fine-tuned a 140-minute concert that is the companion to the mega-collection also dubbed “The Who Hits 50!” released last fall.

Layered harmonies caved to the explosive gut of “Who Are You,” Townshend added wistful vocals to “The Kids are Alright” and the band’s “first proper hit,” 1967’s “I can See for Miles” provided another outlet for air guitar enthusiasts.

A massive video screen behind the stage – in addition to the standard pair flanking it – displayed nostalgic images such as floating head portraits of the artists as young men, Union Jack-decorated Who insignias and video of young lads riding motorbikes through a picturesque countryside.

Starkey used a light hand to create heavy sounds as he motored through the mesmerizing groove of “Magic Bus” and it was impossible not to nod along when the familiar whizzing synthesizers that color “You Better You Bet” floated off the stage.

Roger Daltrey looked and sounded fit...but this is a long tour. Photo: Robb D. Cohen/www.RobbsPhotos.com.

Roger Daltrey looked and sounded fit…but this is a long tour. Photo: Robb D. Cohen/www.RobbsPhotos.com.

Daltrey’s voice has held up remarkably well – as has his well-maintained physique – as he snarled appropriately through “My Generation,” intoned dramatically during “Behind Blue Eyes” and nailed the booming notes in “Love, Reign O’er Me.”

But is his voice durable enough, at 71, to maintain its heft by the time The Who launches a second U.S. leg in September? And while Townshend sounded guttural and strong on “I’m One” and he played with the nimbleness of a man half his almost-70 years, how long until the demands of the band’s challenging songs set in?

For the moment, though, The Who is in admirable form, even able to tackle the epic “A Quick One (While He’s Away),” the precursor to the band’s storied rock operas “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia,” and one stacked with twisty melodies, time changes and high notes.

Plenty of room remained for obligatory sing-alongs including the crunchy “Pinball Wizard’ and “Baba O’Riley,” proof that if this is indeed The Who’s last waltz, they’re leaving fans with plenty of memories.

Opening for the duration of The Who’s tour is newly minted Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Joan Jett.

For 40 minutes, the 56-year-old Jett, who still sports a spiky-shaggy ‘do and covets ebony eyeliner and clothes, barreled through a career-spanning set list with The Blackhearts.

Injecting her taut, punchy pop-rockers with the perfect balance of grit and honey, the diminutive Jett exuded an enviable amount of fierceness.

Spice and sugar, that's Joan Jett's forte. Photo: Robb D. Cohen/www.RobbsPhotos.com.

Spice and sugar, that’s Joan Jett’s forte. Photo: Robb D. Cohen/www.RobbsPhotos.com.

From the opening blast of “Bad Reputation” through ch-ch-ch-ch “Cherry Bomb” and the first song she wrote with The Runaways, the innuendo-driven “You Drive Me Wild,” Jett sounded as ageless as she looked.

While some might think Jett-as-Who-opener curious, she and the band actually have a lengthy history; her self-titled debut was recorded at The Who’s Ramport Studio in 1980.

Even though her set was performed in front of a half-full arena, Jett bulldozed  with her usual intensity, grinding out guitar solos, hopping over to the keyboard to have a word with longtime musical partner-manager-producer Kenny Laguna and flashing the occasional sly grin.

Throughout her career, Jett has managed to make even the most obvious covers her own.

The boot to the face that is the Bruce Springsteen–penned “Light of Day” never sounded as comfortable as when under her command, and her versions of eternal crowd pleasers “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” (The Arrows), “Do You Wanna Touch Me? (Oh Yeah)” (Gary Glitter) and “Crimson and Clover” (Tommy James and the Shondells) marked a 1982 hits trifecta that jumpstarted her career – and eventual overdue recognition from the rock hall.

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