On a night when we knew just what to expect, down to which songs Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey would play and in which order they'd perform them, there was one genuine surprise Saturday night at the American Airlines Center: the moment opening act Joan Jett welcomed Miley Cyrus to the stage.
There was nothing particularly shocking about it -- except, perhaps, for Cyrus' outfit, which involved a black jumpsuit and strategically placed black tape over bare breasts. Until Saturday night they'd performed together only twice: for Oprah Winfrey in 2011, and when Cyrus inducted Jett and the Blackhearts into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame only weeks ago. On that night, Cyrus called Jett an inspiration and "what Superwoman really should be."
Hers wasn't a one-and-done cameo, either: Cyrus came out for "Crimson and Clover" and stuck around for set-ender "I Hate Myself for Loving You." Jett's set kicked off with a song most bands would kill to have for a closer -- "Bad Reputation," which never fails to thrill and satisfy -- but Cyrus' guest shot, a lit match tossed into a fuel spill, galvanized a not-yet-full arena unprepared for the spectacle. And, for more than a moment, it stole the spotlight from the old men about to come out and say their farewells for the 38th time.
But if this is truly the end, if this really is the last time 71-year-old Rog and soon-to-be-70 Pete will play Dallas some 48 years after The Who first demolished Memorial Auditorium, then it was one heck of an adios.
On this "Who Hits 50!" tour augmented by half a dozen extras filling in for the two men down -- Keith Moon and John Entwistle, whose youthful faces filled the video screen during the two-hour set -- Townshend and Daltrey began at the very beginning, with "I Can't Explain," the band's first single as The Who. It was, as ever, quick and catchy -- the anthem of the parka-clad amphetamine set as immortal as anything in the band's bottomless back catalog. From there they proceeded to run through a set list with which only fetishists could complain. (As in: How about a little more "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" and a lot less "Eminence Front"?)
As expected at this late date it took a while for Daltrey to find his voice; during the night's second song, "The Seeker," he was a man desperately seeking the epic yowl that abandoned him each time he tried to scale the mountain. Townshend too seemed to need a moment to find his bearings. Sheets of guitar noise became mere shards; either he's channeling Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill's electric stutter at this late date, or something just wasn't quite right.
Maybe they just needed to limber up, break a sweat, work out the kinks. The songs do most of the heavy lifting at this late date anyway, each one a hit or a standard or both, presented in order: "Who Are You," "The Kids are Alright," "Squeeze Box" (a novelty, at best, from The Who By Numbers), "I Can See for Miles," "My Generation" (now extended to include the lyric "My generation/Still here today," in case you didn't notice). But by the time they got to "Magic Bus," Daltrey no longer needed the ladder to reach the high notes. And Townshend sounded at song's end like a North Mississippi all-star -- a bluesman with a seductive drone to his powerful tone.
Those of us who've seen the band in various incarnations likely couldn't find much to be surprised by: Daltrey's shirt magically lost a few buttons when it came time to go "Behind Blues Eyes." Tommy got far more play than the infinitely better Quadrophenia. And even at this late date, Daltrey can still manage to find somewhere deep within that barrel chest that "Won't Get Fooled Again" scream that can now make a grown man wonder if the room's gotten a little dusty toward night's end.
There were also the countless highlights: A heartbreaking "I'm One," during which Townshend's underrated voice, now somehow more confident and resonant than ever, enveloped the arena. The cathartic, shoulda-been climactic "Sparks," the closest the band came to recapturing the breathtakingly barely controlled chaos that makes Live at Leeds still The Best Live Album Ever. "Love, Reign o'er Me," Townshend's finest moment as songwriter and Daltrey's as his vessel. And the epic mini-rock opera "A Quick One, While He's Away," simply because they did it.
I left the show as I've left every other Who "farewell" -- hoping it ain't so, but thankful they're threatening to leave while there's still meat on the bone. The original foursome were rock's greatest group; the remaining two, more than just its mere shadow. But it felt like an end, if not the end. After wrapping with "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again," sans encore, Daltrey had a few final words for the crowd: "May you always be happy, healthy and be lucky. Good night and good bye." Then, lights up, and off to the next stop before, sooner than later, the last stop.