30 Oct 2019
Moving On! Tour: Rogers Arena, Vancouver, BC, October 21, 2019
Vancouver is a pretty fantastic city. Generally clean, and gorgeous to experience on a clear, warm day. We’re not quite in luck with the weather, though, as it’s colder and a bit damp. Still, the city is among North America’s finest, and only about two hours’ drive north of Seattle. As with any city, there are some rougher areas still, but it’s an upscale town, with waterways and parks plus very active shopping, hotels, and food options downtown.
The arena here is yet another sports facility – sometimes used for concerts. We’ve been here before, so there are no surprises. Hey – the catering is good, which is always a big bonus for us all! On this stage, the soundcheck went well – although Roger was having specific issues, and walked around testing his results in different areas. He knows what he needs to get through a show, and today he’s hearing a region that has too much booming bass right around the front center of the stage, when he goes forward to the crowd. Robert Collins and Chopper quickly dial back the low end to clear that region, and Pete suddenly notices it helps him, too. The tighter bass sound clarifies the sounds above it – they were being slightly masked by the big booms. Suddenly, it allows the band and orchestra to hear a little better, which can provide great dividends during the evening.
You may not know this, but the band NEVER did sound checks for most of their career. Sometimes, for important events like a TV show, the Royal Albert Hall or Madison Square Garden – they would show up early and make sure the sound setup was good. Otherwise, a “normal” day meant the crew would set up and test the equipment, and it was hilariously bad to see us run through ‘Who Are You’ in their place’ Alan Rogan on guitar, Binky on bass, Martin Gavrilovich on drum kit, myself on keys, and often joined by soundman Bob Pridden on the lead vocal spot – making up lyrics! It is recorded out there, a few times, hopefully not for public release, short of blackmail material. However, when we started doing the VIP tickets with a sound check requirement, the band grew to like doing it, and the dividends pay off. Small details, like Roger walking and finding the region of bass excess, would not be possible in the middle of a show. Of course, they had less to worry about, pre-orchestra certainly. After our sound checks, Roger and Pete are then in the building for another two hours, at least, waiting for the show, so they rest, eat, take quiet time and conserve energy for the big event.
Even the sound check today is fairly efficient. We started the tour rehearsing endings with the orchestra, or changing monitor levels for the band on different songs. There have been changes to guitars and amplifier rigs since the start, and each of those required serious time spent testing before the whole ensemble came in. A few times even recently, Pete has spent a good half-hour or more working on guitar sounds, setups of the guitars, trying new pedals, etc. These things would not have happened much in the past, but as they are here for a required sound check event, it makes it easy to tweak and improve the small things. The main issues have all been dialled-in over the months, and everyone is just better at doing what they do; crew, band, etc.
As usual this week, Liam Gallagher is opening. For such a major star in the UK, his set is brief, about a half an hour. He does have a lot of equipment! We were unsure when this started, that it would work at all; to set up required us to move (or remove) most of the things we had spent hours preparing for our show. Luckily both the keyboard and drum platforms had room to roll away, but Pete, Simon, and Jon’s amplifier and pedal systems had to be cleared completely away for each show. So much work, just to clear and then re-set just before our big event. But, it does work, just another extreme effort from this hardworking crew. (The tour has been fine, but nearly double the work for some of us each day.)
The show begins with a simple “Hey!” and a laugh from Pete, then he gives the thumbs-up to Zak to start it off. As soon as the Tommy set launches, we’re noticing something pretty special here. The band and orchestra are playing incredibly “tight” – that everyone-locked-together feeling. This tour has had some issues with that, given that it’s such a big stage and everyone may be following a slightly different timing reference (a drum pattern, a click track, or the conductor’s waving baton.) Tiny fragments of a second can really affect the feel of the music, and tonight the synchronized rhythm is nearly perfect – on every part of every song this first half. While slick perfection is not the concept of most Who shows, it’s nice when it gets close naturally. The ending of the ‘Overture’ is as tight as we’ve ever heard. Clockwork.
Pete talks about “doing a runner” which is an industry term for “leaving immediately after the show.” If planned carefully, this beats ALL the traffic, but even five minutes later, they’d be caught in the log jam of traffic leaving the show. “Heading for a hot bath . . . by myself! At 74, that’s all I can expect. ” He continues, “and if I’m really lucky, a crime novel . . .”
Midway into the show, I talked to Pete’s guitar tech. He agreed fully, and said he thought it was the best show of the tour so far. We do record each show, which could be mixed later on. However, on this tour, the strict Musician Union contracts allow us only archival use of the recordings; no releases for sale without re-negotiating the pay rate for the musicians and contractors involved. Still, if a show were so exceptional, something could be done with such a recording of a great night. We are all hoping something can be done with at least one of these orchestral shows for general release (sale and streaming, airplanes and whatever . . .) but all that will take some expensive negotiations far beyond our normal tour films and albums.
It wasn’t lasting, this night of shining brilliance. The usual slips – and more than a few – started happening. We had some serious guitar issues (which is sort of critical in these shows!) of things coming unplugged or a pedal turned off at the wrong time. The endings got sloppier, though not bad. They just were not of “releasable quality” anymore.
At ‘The Punk and The Godfather’, Pete tells the audience “because we’re so close to Seattle, we managed to invite . . . actually, we can’t keep him away. Eddie Vedder!” Truth; Ed volunteered to come across the border to at least watch the show, and no one in this world would keep him off the stage if he’s willing. The crowd ate it up, completely surprised at their good fortune. It’s already a great show, and now this happens – it was memorable and valuable to be in these seats tonight.
During the band introductions, Pete started joking with Zak, saying that drummers were always a problem. “If I had my own band, I wouldn’t even have a drummer! I’d have one of those little boxes that goes boop-beep-boop-beep over and over!” He continued to grill Zak – “Anyone can do it, even a chimpanzee!” Zak stood up and stomped away, halfway in jest! Then Pete continued more “We do have FOUR drummers in back” pointing toward the percussionists, “any of you want to try??” The audience was howling, but Zak was certainly taking it a little personally. He stomped away again to make his point, but then ‘Baba’ started up, requiring his presence. With Baba O’Riley started, Pete went up to Roger and started air-drumming, showing that he COULD do the beat, if he wanted to . . . (of course most of you have Pete’s demos, where he plays a fine set of drums.) Roger and the audience were howling, those that could see it – as the light cue has only lights on the piano, bass and drums during that segment, and Pete was largely in the dark for this hilarious moment. Even the end of ‘Baba’ was sloppy to an extreme, with Pete cutting it quite short, then Zak doing a slowly-fading drum roll as the orchestra lingered beyond the stop point. “Well, someone had to screw something up tonight” Pete said – noting obviously he’d seen how well they played on most of the show.
I’m used to The Who, you likely are, too. But as I have some guests tonight who are not big fans, some even new to the music, I heard the show through their perspective, too. I am realizing how much range this music has. Yes, the regular rock-band version exists here in our middle section. Guitar, bass, drums pop and rock, both commercial melodic pop and sort of blues-based rhythm/groove jamming music. We have the instrumentals, which lie halfway between a purely classical approach and things the progressive-rock bands attempted in their heyday. There is a raw folk and ballad side, with the acoustic duo, ‘Imagine a Man’, and ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ – a softer, vulnerable side most hard-rock bands don’t delve into. Even ‘Eminence Front’, which is almost a one-chord, trance piece – dance music essentially in rock form. The longer-form pieces like ‘Who Are You’, with multiple instrumental breaks, and the extended changes of ‘Baba’, which leads into a pure Irish jig to close our show. There are some bands with a decent range of rockers and ballads, but in the world of The Stones, U2, Metallica, Springsteen, Guns N Roses, Neil Young – most of those never touch even half the colours we hear tonight. This modern Who tour is an exceptional show to catch, not just another version of what you’ve seen before. As we’re nearing the end of 2019’s shows, we hope you did . . . If not, there is more of this to come out there, wherever it may lead us.
The Who have certainly changed over the years, we all know that. From the early mod-era jangly pop with R&B roots evident, no one would have conceived of the ferocious 1969 heavy rock animal that had found its unique style in five short years. Yet, right around that time, the instrumentation began to change with Pete’s incorporation of keyboard parts – things we now consider integral parts of The Who, but not really even a thought at Monterey Pop or Woodstock. The band again grew and changed some throughout the ’70s and early ’80s, adding live tape playback so they could do ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ or ‘Baba’ as people would expect. But even with that, they were really unable to pull off the challenging full Quadrophenia album live, which is also a fully-qualified normal Who album. They continued through the ’70s and early ’80s, until that framework dissolved.
Then you have a long series of breaks. There were solo albums, acting, a reunion tour with a large band, etc. Tommy with horns and backup singers and guests. The year-2000 tour with John, Zak and Rabbit was probably the closest thing to the old band that had existed in a long time, so it was fresh and cool to have the old songs done in a minimal way again.
On this 2019 tour, the orchestra presentation is so far-removed from the lean and minimal little Who that was so powerful and effective (with just three instruments plus tambourines!) An orchestra can overwhelm (sometimes on purpose) but it can add a range of power and beauty not otherwise available. We all know many people want just to re-live an early version of The Who, as it was so good then. Yet as we’ve been told by Pete and Roger in interviews, the orchestra IS the reason there is a tour this year. Pete was reluctant, but has now said he enjoys “every minute of it.” Stranger still, not many expected it to be so good, but it is. There are moments in this show that are the ultimate version of some of these songs, like ‘The Rock’ and ‘Love Reign O’er Me’. ‘Imagine a Man’ has been an unexpected highlight no fan expected – a song we’d never hear at a Who show without the orchestra.
What is more unexpected (and unrelated to the orchestral concept) is the current strengths of Roger and Pete. As Pete says almost nightly, Roger’s voice has actually improved over the years, and he’s hitting hard every night, with even longtime Who fans astonished at his power and range now. His range has grown. And it’s obvious he’s really enjoying the experience, as the setlist allows him to sing, play guitars, harmonica and bring his rugged charm to bear throughout the show. And Pete is exploring the guitar more and more, with techniques, sounds, effects and simple dexterity. His playing now is far beyond what the PT of the 1960s/’70s/’80s was capable of. He’s taking chances, pushing himself and surprising even the seasoned concert-goers. It’s just a joy with watch and hear.
Pete and Roger have also done the “duo acoustic thing” before, mainly on ‘Tea and Theatre’ and ‘Man In A Purple Dress’ in 2006/2007. You may also remember Pete’s solo version of ‘Pinball Wizard’ on The Secret Policeman’s Ball performance of 1979, or him doing ‘I’m One’ or ‘Drowned’ solo in previous tours. These stripped-down versions are rarely seen, but have become another major highlight of the night. Without the loudness, the distortion, the screams, we still get the powerful songs and performances. I don’t think anyone expected an acoustic version of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ to be better than the usual live powerhouse, with keyboard layers, drum breaks, and screams. As one hears ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ in a new form, you realize some good things within it – and some new things have emerged. I wonder how many out there think The Who is microphone swinging, windmills on guitar, Keith Moon craziness, white jumpsuits, aerial jumps, and HiWatt amps? Wonderful things, but there is a version without any of those that fully qualifies – and has been there since the start. As we hear in this tonight’s version, a version is simply GREAT. Same song, but it’s new, it’s refreshing, and it’s a bold move to show how the piece stands without all those major factors. It gives a chance for Roger to improvise his vocal parts and rhythmic stuff, and for Pete to stretch the rhythms and harmonies of the guitar to its extremes. Plus their Everly Bros voices playing off each other – which changes each night, too.
This kind of stuff is very, very promising as things go forward. There is no “big plan” for what will happen after this tour. But we’re all energized by the quality of these performances and the response it’s getting. These last Hollywood Bowl shows have been stellar, and a jaded music-city audience is raving about it, despite high prices. They’re telling everyone it was well worth it, and they thought it might be good . . . only to find it was beyond their hopes. Some have said they saw the best concert they’ve ever seen – and many of those saw the old Who in their prime. I’m not saying it’s better now, but there are exceptional experiences being had. A sort of newness opened up with this tour, and our two principals stepped in and filled it nicely. It’s not a total deviation from before, but it shows how much better they do when they’re not chained only to the past way of doing things.
A friend of mine commented “I like growing up with the bands I grew up with . . .” Key there is the growth; not sticking in the past, as great as it was. Keep what’s good from that, or even lose some of it to gain new ground that is as good. I have a feeling if their future only held “greatest hits tours” forever (such as most classic-rock bands do) then you would not be seeing much – or any – future shows. But with a bright opening like this, they could go on and on in whatever ways they find useful. The money’s good, yeah, but we see them having FUN again, and that counts for so much.
So . . . Imagine a Band – there are lots of options there now.
Tonight’s Set List
We’re Not Gonna Take It
Who Are You
Imagine a Man
Hero Ground Zero
I Can See For Miles
You Better You Bet
Won’t Get Fooled Again (acoustic; Roger & Pete only)
Behind Blue Eyes (with violin and cello accompaniment)
Ball and Chain
The Real Me
The Punk and the Godfather (with Eddie Vedder)
Love Reign O’er Me