13 Feb 2016 – Wembley Arena, London
Well, our next leg of the North American tour starts in… London?
We set up and “rehearsed” this week at old Shepperton Studios. Rehearsal for The WHO are unlike most other groups. Certainly, the songs are fairly well-known to the band, and played often, even for the newest members who have been with us now 3 years. But with time off, as we’ve had recently, you forget small things that were once commonplace. However, the Who rehearsal this week was minimal, a basic run-through of most pieces, and some not even played at all. Our friends in the band Rush have said they rehearse for two full months before going on tour: it’s not uncommon for The WHO to start a new tour without ever having played each song even once. I remember doing Live 8, the biggest concert of its type in the last decade. We had a new guest drummer and bassist for that one event; they came to rehearsal nervous and anxious. We ran through two songs, about twice apiece, and one of them we never even played all the way through! “Good enough…” and the poor guys were left unsure and worried. We went on to play for 80 million people and, although it was far from perfect, it was one of the very strongest performances that day.
This is a new beginning, the one-off London show being a welcome hometown start, followed by nearly 3 months of make-up shows in the USA. We’re fully aware that most of you have bought tickets well over a year ago (!!!) for these shows, and they have moved quite a bit from the original plans. Hopefully your schedules still allow everyone to attend… and maybe have even more thirst for a good long drink of The WHO.
Our biggest-ever VIP audience was treated to a good soundcheck. Nearly 300 people came down early to watch the band (still in overcoats as it was so cold) run through special parts of the set. As Roger said, with the prices everyone’s paying, you’d think they would heat up the building a little more! The doors opened and a mass of people came in, keeping the merchandise booths busier than I’ve ever seen. Opening the show was lucky man of the day, Barns Courtney, a solo act who played and sang well, enough to keep a rabid WHO audience satisfied.
Admittedly, most of us were quite worried about tonight’s show, with good reason. Roger has recovered nearly fully from his medical issues in the Fall, he’d been working to gain back his voice and physical stamina. Without the actual test of a show, full-blown at-volume singing and body motion – you’d never know how well it might go. Everyone else had spent their time preparing their own contribution, but “first shows” are often rusty and haphazard affairs. Sometimes disastrous. It’s a general rule to premiere the new tour legs in smaller off-media cities where you can flex and shape the show as it becomes more solid under less-critical eyes. In this case, London is not really an undercover arena for hiding anything; it’s a full-blown attention-getting affair, with families and friends and media and some of the longest and truest Wholigans out for their favorite. It’s a smart and savvy crowd, harder to please than almost anyone.
As they do, the band amble onstage casually, making noise and testing sounds briefly before beginning, the opposite of most fanfare-led bands that have an opening tape and dramatics. Roger said a brief “…’allo!” – far off the mic. This is the old WHO still, in a way, often quietly casual before becoming an intense onstage battle. It seems we had no need to worry, as from the very first minute of ‘Who Are You’ the show was a STRONG one. Pete started immediately, charging into the chords and Roger’s first notes allayed any worries about his voice; it was definitely right THERE.
Not to say there weren’t issues – it wouldn’t be a WHO show without looseness and wildness. Wrong notes, yes, timing issues, yes, but all these made it exciting, rather than detracting. As everyone can tell, the whole band are there, present, and definitely never “phoning it in.” It’s the opposite of a pre-programmed and scripted show, the moments of “error” actually add to the show – an interesting concept! Roger did admit that his hospital stay had caused him to lose some hearing perception, but it actually seems to have raised the pitch range of his voice a bit, he’s having no trouble with the higher and middle rangers; only his extremely low growls he’s taken to recently have been affected. I’d have to say it was one of his best shows in recent years.
“It’s good to be back!” was Roger’s first post-song greeting. You can sense his relief in doing it all again. He was very moved by the outpouring of emotional well-wishing received since we last played. He and Pete were definitely enjoying themselves up there, as were the band. Roger mentioned driving into Wembley always reminds him of Keith Moon, as they used to pick him up at his flat, only 500 yards away. Speaking of Keith, he said, the song always reminded him of the great drummer – ‘The Kids Are Alright’. Keith was often late, Pete said, and eventual became ‘the late Keith Moon’ – “SO late that he would never be late again!”
On the third song break, Pete had pointed to the floor in front of him, motioning that he needed a setlist to follow. The crew rapidly brought out said item, and taped it to the floor. Pete explained; “I decided to upgrade myself on the last tour, and I used an iPad.” (It had the setlist and some chords, notes, and pedal controllers for page changes.) “This year, I decided to dispense with it and now I don’t know what the f### I’m doing!”
But with the new paper setlist down, Pete revealed another problem: with his eyesight, he could not read the small letters! He admitted he’ll have to get down on the ground, but warned the audience at his advanced age “I might not get back up again!” Dramatically, he did get down – and up again, to solid applause. Then he laughed out loud…
“The irony is… the next song is… ‘I Can See for Miles’!!!”
By the next song break, another setlist came out and was taped down. Pete thought it was a new sequence of songs, or something, until he looked at it; they’d managed to print out the same setlist in double-sized type, so he could read it from where he stood. He then noted the large senior-accessible type and said the next song was also ironic, given the scene: ‘My Generation’!
‘Pictures of Lily’ was up next, and the usual “Keith Moon in drag” slide we show on the video was modified, it had the face of a bearded man on the body of Keith in lingerie, a nicely-done Photoshop addition. Almost no one present knew who the bearded-lady was: longtime manager Bill Curbishley (who was here) in the early ’70s when he had a lot more hair! Despite seeing Bill daily over the years, even only a few on the crew knew it, so you’re forgiven if it caused confusion. I don’t think Roger and Pete even caught it. But nicely done, whoever did it!
We saw something Pete did that was only mentioned about 30 minutes later; a windmill-strum had partly ripped off one of his right-hand fingernails – a painful, but sometimes common injury he deals with. “I was showing off” Pete explained. He had to clip off the remaining bit (ouch) and motioned for the often-used bottle of spray that deadens the pain. The playing showed no sign of holding back, quite the opposite. If you can find video of this show online, there are some amazing guitar bits happening here and there – he’s been practicing, for sure.
Nice to see old mate Matt Kent down in front shooting photos: many of you will know Matt as the former webmaster for Pete’s website, and author of one of the very best WHO books nearly 10 years ago. He’s taken some great photos over the years, and likely more to come from tonight.
As hinted in the previous blog, the new additions were additional songs from Quadrophenia: ‘I’m One’ and ‘The Rock’. It’s a great set of tunes, and most WHO fans are big Quad fans as well, whether it be from the music alone, the film or the whole mod culture (who are always in attendance for our shows). The set change also gives Rog a vocal rest for two songs, before the challenging Tommy medley. Most audible during the huge tom-tom fills in ‘The Rock’, Zak’s new drumset really helps the show. It’s wooden shells, rather than the clear plastic he’s had on recent tours. (Yes, we’ll have to change the pre-show slides that mention the old kit! Speaking of the slides, it’s certainly become a popular thing while one sits and waits for the big show to begin; The WHO team tries to make the whole evening a great affair. ) Having ‘Sparks’ and ‘The Rock’ in the set really do allow the music to shine, and our band of players can really pull off those many piano/guitar/synth layers of the Quadrophenia record live.
Roger mentioned that they’d spent “billions” on the Wembley stadium right next door, and leave this arena “the p—hole that it always was!” It’s known to be a lesser place, sonically, to play. But our Front-Of-House mix engineer Robert Colllins has done it many times before and had a great LOUD sound. In past years, the PA and room sound had really bothered Pete and Roger, bouncing back to the stage, but their use of in-ear monitors now makes the house echo much less of a problem, and the PA level can be louder, as a rock band should be! I’ve noticed they did one very smart thing; horizontal black cloth banners hanging from the roof overhead, all over the seating area. This doesn’t block anyone’s vision to the stage, but it keeps down the echo and bounce that plague many arenas we play. Smart and easy, why don’t more places do this?
A t the end, Pete felt “our test-bed show” had gone really well, as did Roger. It certainly had a bit more of the spirit and drive than we could have hoped for. Coming soon – lots of shows in the USA, as you probably know!
Joan Jett was an incredible double-bill type opening act, and everyone seems to love her and her music – for good reason. Sadly, Roger’s medical break postponed the Fall tour, and these coming dates had already been booked on Joan’s calendar – so we need a new support act. Pete Townshend had met Tal Wilkenfeld, and she played him her songs and was knocked out. Tal is most-known for replacing our own Pino Palladino in Jeff Beck’s band, and she is a monster of the bass. What most people don’t know is that she’s an incredible songwriter, and sings as well as most lead vocalists! It’s emotional and powerful music, not difficult to enjoy, but moody and intense. Many major artists in the music business have a deep respect for her, and have helped her along, hoping to bring back some of the classic days of people who could write AND play well. She’s now hand-picked to be our support act for the coming shows, and it will be something quite different than you may have seen with us. Aside from the Pino connection (they are good friends), Tal’s main bass tech previously has been Tim Myer, who has been with us in the WHO crew for a few years. Tal’s band is incredible players as well, particularly her fantastic guitarist Owen Barry, who we hope gets as much attention as anyone out there. They are great people and we look forward to sharing the night with them. Tal’s record is done, but not out, so we hope you’ll be among the first in the world to discover her great music. Wait and see…