Brian Kehew's Backstage Blog

Moving On! Tour: State Farm Arena, Atlanta, GA, September 18, 2019

Onward indeed, leaving the state quite a ways, we’re now in Atlanta, GA. It’s a big, big place – those of you who have ventured around here. It’s spread out all over, much like Los Angeles or London – there seems to be no boundary. Always, we have fun here onstage and off.

We’re back on familiar territory, as far as this venue seems. It’s a sports/concert area. We’ve done so many all over the world that it’s basically just a different color seat; red one place, blue or yellow the next. Yes, there are size differences, but most of them a middle-range, as this one is. Close to 10,000 people will be here, give or take . . .

We had a nice soundcheck, too – simple and straightforward work. During their own rehearsal, some of the orchestra starts off a little shaky, to be honest. Even Keith Levenson runs them through some parts twice – which we don’t normally do. But we hear the various players practicing between songs and after their scheduled time working out the difficult passages on their own. That’s a GREAT sign; it means they’ll do their part – as our band and crew do – to overcome any difficulties beforehand. Come showtime, it should all be in order. We don’t expect perfection on our part, nor in anyone else along for the ride.

Just after another raucous and big-sounding Reignwolf set (they have a lot of gear for a three-piece) the audience is warmed up; they are quite different than The Who, but it sounds good and LOUD and wakes everyone up in time for some food, drinks, t-shirts and . . .

Our show starts well. I have the feeling there’s a memory lingering of our last show – nearly a fiasco, but it did function. There’s a greater chance of just a fine workable performance tonight, and it seems everyone is calm and enjoying Good Sound, onstage and off. 

Speaking of sound, our longtime mixer Robert Collins has flown away to mix for Eric Clapton this week. He’s loyal to their camp and ours, but previous commitments are made and honoured. Our second-in-command ‘Chopper’ moves up to handle the desk once again. He’s a pro as well, toured the world with major artists, and we’re in good hands. Engineer Paul Sarault has come out to assist ‘Chopper’ and is mixing alongside him now to handle the orchestral channels. Robert was doing a fine job at our strange Jones Beach night, and he’s probably got his hands full again with the Crossroads Festival this week.

‘Chopper’ and Paul at the mixing desk

“Hey!” The show starts with a comment from Townshend. “So great to be back in Elton John’s hometown.” He mentioned being with him in London recently and Elton was saying how much he loved it here. “It’s getting cooler all the time . . .” Indeed it is.

Tommy as usual. No surprises there. At the end of ‘Overture’, Pete gestures towards Simon, as he’s just been doing some superb guitar work on the piece. ‘1921’: I’ve mentioned the subtle ending piece I always love hearing. Tonight Pete plays some gorgeous little melodies over that closing section, something totally new and unheard until tonight. It’s those moments we love – moving forward, trying things, newness – it goes hand in hand with the classics you hear each night, but keeps them different every night. This is why it’s worth seeing more than one show, if you can.

I noticed a good balance happening here, compared to other tours: When we did Quadrophenia and More, or Roger’s orchestral Tommy, there is literally no chat onstage until the larger pieces are done. That can mean an easy hour or more without any of the momentary evening humour or insights into the music. I’m not a fan of that, as we’ve come to wholly appreciate the talk that happens as much as the music – maybe more so, as the talk is always unexpected and fresh. One of the reasons The Who Hits 50! tour was such a success was there was a LOT of talking; stories about the songs, trading jabs between Rog and Pete and the audience. But the larger pieces mean something and should not be interrupted (take note, Abbie Hoffman) as it breaks the mood. So now our balance is there – a good chunk of Tommy and Quad, while plenty of time is spent discussing things like Elton and the current tour etc.

I mentioned the orchestra before – they definitely have improved and are playing as well as most do – their brief exercises and practice really did the trick. Some of them are literally rocking out, they know this music and are enjoying being onstage with the band. Meanwhile, The Who band are also playing better overall each night. I think this is the time when a touring band “gets into a groove” and really can stop worrying about What To Play, and spend more time working out small nuances and details, given the familiar territory. (Luckily, this band doesn’t tour enough to get into a seven-month grind of show after show, when things can lose their energy.) They are sounding good tonight, with better sound helping them groove and hit “the pocket” – the hard-to-define place where players lock together and make the music feel best.

David Campbell is mentioned again tonight; he’s the arranger who did almost all the scores we hear on this tour. It’s an art to choose parts that work against a thick rock band texture, those that add to it or supplement it well. Another factor is difficulty – the orchestras have only one time through the whole thing, so the parts have to be written with fairly do-able techniques. David did the score work for Roger’s Tommy, but in past years, Keith Levenson has done work for Roger, as did the legendary Michael Kamen (R.I.P.) who seemed to be the go-to man for rock-meets-orchestra things, like Pink Floyd or Metallica. David Campbell is now that man, and you can Google his many, many credits.

‘Hero Ground Zero’ video courtesy of Who fan Edward Ingraham 

Pete’s done the score here for ‘Hero Ground Zero’ now, keeping it in the family, as his wife Rachel is an expert orchestrator herself. Pete mentions the leader of the renowned Atlanta Symphony Orchestra had been in touch encouraging his own orchestration work. After the new song, Roger mentions his resistance to the WHO record idea initially, but that he’s fallen for it and “it turned out terrific! Well done, Pete!” he salutes. Speaking of chat – Roger’s jumping in more tonight, and it’s a very welcome thing. His laughter and positive spark is always a good mood-lifter.

Leading into ‘I Can See For Miles’, Pete recalls days of the hippie movement, back to the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 when the song had become an early hit for them. He talks about people “in decorative clothing” and how his girlfriend (who had made clothes for Pink Floyd and Hendrix) had made him a big cloak. (Roger jokes about the tablecloth he wore at Monterey.) Pete’s cloak was a useless hindrance to guitar activities, so he threw it away. Then he decided to move towards more functional working clothing – a plain jumpsuit/boiler suit and Doc Marten work boots. Then, seemingly everyone copied him – especially working people, like plumbers etc – who have since duplicated his highly original look! (wink wink)

Further pushing the timeline joke, he asked about people born after 1967, then stated that “we only want fresh fans – who know how to work a f***ing laptop!!” As it happens, we noticed a lot of young people here tonight. From a very young girl sitting on her father’s shoulders in the third or fourth row during ‘Who Are You’ – wearing her own Who t-shirt and singing along to the catchy chorus. I met a mother and her two kids outside taking photos by our signs, one of many multi-generational layers we see today. Yeah, the usual people are here from expected age and gender groups. But the change is always cool – when those in the YouTube generation discover a great group that is timeless and visually stunning in performance. We’re also seeing a greater number of those in their 20s and 30s; too young to have been around for original album releases, but without any nostalgia, have become big Who fans.

Credit must be given to the video team – we have cameras in the front pit, back at the soundboard/lightboard platform, and some robotic remote cameras onstage between the musicians. All of this adds up to a better show – they actually know the show so well, they can choose what you see and when. It’s also a live “performance” on their part, catching the best bits moment-by-moment. When this tour was being formed, the cost of bringing the orchestras was incredibly high. They are Unionized musicians, with strict pay rates and regulations to employ them. One of the ideas to offset this was to make the show more like a theater/symphonic performance, and less like a modern U2/Britney/Beyonce video event. It was realized that some video was critical, but films of flying pinballs or other content were not needed; the musicians and music were enough. So we left the giant LED screen out for this tour, and now just have two large projection screens on both sides. Without question, in a room this big, the screens are a necessity, and almost no one can imagine sitting through a show without video – even though it was done this way for decades. Next time you’re at a show (ours or others) try to imagine it without the screens; you don’t have to look at them, but it sure makes sitting far above or far away much more tolerable.

‘The Rock’ and ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ are strong as usual. I even see tears flowing from people in the crowd as Roger soars through ‘Love Reign O’er Me”s wide-ranging vocals. Loren Gold’s piano introduction is later jokingly described by Pete as “2 ½ hours long . . . If we go over curfew it’s his fault! And if you have a parking ticket – send it to him!” Everyone loves ‘Baba O’Riley’, probably the most-unlikely and extremely popular reference to a minimalist composer ever created. I doubt anyone here is thinking of that as they sing along – hmm, maybe a few? Nah.


Tonight’s Set List

With Orchestra
Amazing Journey
Pinball Wizard
We’re Not Gonna Take It
Who Are You
Eminence Front
Imagine a Man
Hero Ground Zero

Band Only
The Kids Are Alright
I Can See for Miles
Your Better You Bet
Won’t Get Fooled Again (acoustic; Roger & Pete only)
Behind Blue Eyes (with violin and cello accompaniment)

With Orchestra
Ball and Chain
The Real Me
I’m One
The Rock
Love Reign O’er Me
Baba O’Riley