When it comes to legacy rock acts, there’s always a bit of grading on a curve.
The years take a chunk out of everyone, and whether it’s the ravages of age, an interest in other pursuits or the loss of key collaborators, it’s the rare rock band that can still stand tall, 50 years after its debut, and be mostly intact, never mind showing glimmers of why it’s endured for so long.
The Who, down to just two original members — Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend — did not seem much interested in taking the easy way out Saturday at American Airlines Center.
Backed by a sextet of musicians, including Ringo Starr’s son, Zak Starkey, on drums, the 71-year-old Daltrey and the 69-year-old Townshend punched through a robust two-hour set brimming with vitality and all but sneering at death. (In a brief acknowledgment of Ben E. King’s passing and B.B. King’s rapidly failing health, Townshend cracked: “We’re really rather young and valuable, aren’t we?”)
Celebrating the past without becoming trapped in it is a feat on its own, and one which the Who, performing its first Dallas gig in nine years, mostly pulled off with aplomb.
The ghosts of the late Keith Moon and John Entwistle hovered nearby — occasionally literally, with their visages drifting onto the enormous video screens flanking the musicians — but their absence seemed tinged more with acceptance than sorrow.
The near-capacity crowd, on its feet much of the night, reliably cheered the well-worn hits, but it was when the band veered off the beaten path a little and explored the nooks and crannies of its catalog that the night really came to life.
The full-tilt blues breakdown at the climax of Magic Bus was astonishing, just as Quadrophenia’s I’m One proved deeply poignant.
The Tommy medley (spinning from Amazing Journey to Sparks to Pinball Wizard to See Me, Feel Me) near the concert’s finale drove home the quicksilver genius of that seminal rock opera.
The calcified familiarity of classic cuts such as My Generation or Behind Blue Eyes or The Seeker gave a hint of what the evening might have been like in lesser hands — entertaining, sure, but never achieving lift-off.
Daltrey’s muscular voice — thickened, lowered, and worn, but still a mighty weapon when laid against Townshend’s windmilled, acid-dipped riffs — laid into what the vocalist described as “the best lyrics any singer could ever hope to get his vocal cords around.”
He can’t quite scale the heights he once did — the backing musicians would occasionally fade into the higher registers, filling out Daltrey’s vocals — but he remains one of rock music’s singular blunt instruments, twirling his microphone like a maniac.
As with most legacy acts, there lingers the question: Is this the last time?
Both Daltrey and Townshend have alluded to this “The Who Hits 50!” tour as being a “long farewell,” and it’s tough to envision the two men gearing up for yet another arena run in their mid-to-late seventies. (That said, never say never.)
If this was the last, best chance to see one of the defining rock bands of the 20th century demonstrate why they have amassed fervent generations of fans (and provide a reasonable facsimile of the glory days), it was an exhilarating valedictory lap.
Joan Jett served up a fine opening set, and delivered the night’s most WTF moment, when she asked Miley Cyrus to join her on stage for Crimson & Clover and I Hate Myself for Loving You. Cyrus acquitted herself well (and stuck around to watch the headliner), but it was a jarring sideshow to the otherwise straight-ahead rock ‘n roll.
Preston Jones, 817-390-7713