Brian Kehew's Backstage Blog

Moving On! Tour: Viejas Arena at Aztec Bowl, San Diego, CA, October 16, 2019

This event is actually within the property of San Diego State University, SDSU. They often have big outside events here, and it’s a fully professional event space, as capable and sizeable as any other venue. But we do see students all around, parking and walking to classes, bicycling by – the typical university campus scene.

Meet the old boss . . .

It’s an interesting room – good sound, sort of. It’s wider than most, and Pete comments later that they must play sports here, but maybe sideways? Not quite, it’s just oriented with a less-deep room than others, and more width. The sound is not the usual hard echo of an arena space, but also has its issues. From the stage, we can tell our end of things will sound pretty good here. It’s amazing how much variety of sound we have to contend with – from the driest outdoor field to a bouncing echo-laden situation with a roof and metal or concrete walls. This is somewhere in the middle, a forgiving middle ground. It’s funny though, instead of varying levels, there is just one long walk from the floor up to the rear seats – we even joked about racing each other up to the top; sure to bring a cardiac arrest in someone. These seats and stands are built for young students, not really decades-old Who fans!

Our Lighting Crew Chief, Iestyn Thomas catches a few well-earned zzzzzzz before the show

It’s hard to explain to a non-musician, but playing an instrument is influenced by factors far beyond the physical and mental capabilities of a player. A pianist or guitarist is helped or handicapped by the instrument itself – some are difficult to play, even for an expert, but a nicely-set up instrument really allows a player to do their very best work – and the differences for a guitarist between ideal and challenging is measure in actual millimetres. Our crew are seasoned and skilled at working on the instruments, and a good portion of each day is spent restringing, tuning, and setting up the instruments for the night. Each room and temperature can affect the height of the strings and the vibration or stiffness of an instrument designed to resonate. In the same way, the sound of the stage and the room around it also help or hinder the player, and there is no rule about what sounds best. Sometimes small things can be done to minimise the effects (we use onstage sound baffles by a company called ASC Tube Traps to control some of the bounce of sound across the stage.)

Soundcheck, and Simon passes on some acoustic ideas to his brother Pete

Soundcheck goes well. There’s a lot less pressure here than the Hollywood Bowl, and the audience at the VIP soundcheck seem excited and ready to roll, so the vibe is friendly and not too intense. Simon shows Pete some acoustic guitar tips he’s thought of – and Pete agrees, and starts practicing them before the show. A considerable time is spent on Pete’s acoustic guitar sound too – always searching for a better result. It has fed-back a few times during shows and they’re trying to sort out a way to make that go away.

The San Diego show begins totally silently – except for the cheering. No announcement or spoken hello, just a nod from Roger as he grabs his tambourines and a wave from Pete. The show begins with ‘Silas Stingy’, ‘Rael’, ‘Our Love Was’, ‘Here For More’, ‘Disguises’, ‘Trilby’s Piano’, ‘Whiskey Man’, ‘Too Much of Anything’. . . Umm, not really, of course. The setlist has been steady and solid, with only one song changed per night. There’s always talk of changes or more being done, but on each tour some momentum sets in and the working setlist means less fuss and possibly better playing. We all like a bit of change, but those songs I just mentioned might please 10% of the crowd (no doubt those reading this, too) but the other 90 % may walk out! It’s likely this tour won’t have much room to change, especially as the orchestra is one thing we’re here to do – and it cannot vary much from what they’re given to play.

Tommy begins it, as usual. ‘Amazing Journey’ is spectacular today, it seems, really thundering and strong. The ‘Captain Walker’ segment (which used to be part of ‘Spark’s in the old days) is the repeated thundering chord section before the ‘Sparks’/’Rael’ theme emerges. Tonight Pete is on fire with it, really burning all over the guitar neck, no doubt enjoying the new sound he’s dialled in back at the Hollywood Bowl soundchecks. Just after Pete’s extended soloing, Jon Button takes on a series of bass parts, very John Entwistle noodling that shows off his skills. These are brighter solo parts that one never usually hears with a band, except The Who.

Loren Gold is wearing his Union Jack jacket (Union Jacket?) which is quite a familiar sight to any Who fan. Pete is quite known for wearing one during the 60s mod era, quite a pop-art fashion statement, and a pro-UK one at that. There is a rumour that it was originally John Entwistle’s jacket, but I have no intel on that. We do know that David Bowie has admitted to “borrowing” the very distinctive idea for a new style coat on his Earthling album cover. David Bowie was a big Who fan, and used to come to our shows now and then. Our longtime creative director, Tom Kenny, spent as many years on the road with Bowie as he’s done with The Who.

Speaking of earthlings and aliens . . . here’s Katie with one of them from the cover of her new album

Speaking of fashion – it’s yet another facet of this band that rarely gets mentioned. On previous tours, part of our pre-show slides were for fashion, and one would really understand how much of our image of the band was shaped by distinctive (and original) fashion. Starting with the calculated Mod styes (shirts with arrows and graphics) and moving into the frillier coats and outfits soon after. Then, in a reaction to this, Pete created the iconic look of a plain workman’s jumpsuit (boiler suit) and John did a leather skeleton suit, just as iconic and unusual. Roger started wearing his fringed vests, showing a sexier/cooler rock side of things, often supplied by his wife Heather. The music is the best part, but it’s not all about the music.

This crowd, sort of true to the stereotype of San Diego beach crowd, are here to party! They are loud, many drinkers, and many dancers out there. It makes the show loose and fun, not self-conscious as the LA shows, good as they were.

‘Who Are You’ hits hard, as usual. The crowd always show their true colors during this one – Tommy is much more about listening, but ‘Who Are You’ really brings out the deeper nature of the evening’s crowd. The middle guitar solo is ambient, like desert waves, using swells and echoes. Kind of a cooler/trippier version of the normal ones. Pete’s normal guitar solo on ‘Eminence Front’ was delayed a bit, and he was clearly frustrated at something not going right sonically. At first, missing the entrance point but soon he was following with some incredible playing. This song is always a showcase for how he feels, and one of the good indicators if he’s feeling great about his playing. Seems good tonight, there are some beautiful speedy guitar moments just before he sings. Jon Button’s bass may be hard for the audience to pick out; there are so many layers of sound in this mix. But those of us on the side stage can hear what Pete is hearing through his stage monitors, and the bass playing is incredible. It sounds like there’s an extra octave-down pedal effect on Jon’s bass for this, but we’re not sure. Whatever, it sounds amazing where we are. Similarly, keyboards are not always heard in the dense mixes, but Loren Gold is either providing supportive textures and harmonies or WAY out-front during featured parts. Everyone here is a pro, and do as much or little as the job requires.

Both ‘Imagine a Man’ and ‘Hero Ground Zero’ tend to make the more casual fans here relax, and many do sit down. But they seem to be politely listening, and maybe saving up some energy for more action soon after. Without a doubt, it IS a planned pause for the band and the audience, to save some intensity for later on.

The PRG GroundControl™ system in use in San Diego tonight

I notice the spotlights highlighting Roger during ‘Imagine a Man’, and must tell you about a quartet of people sitting behind the stage. They operate overhead spotlights from their remote location, sitting in chairs watching screens just behind our big rear curtain. They operate a PRG GroundControl™ system that uses cameras and screens to let them direct their overhead light beams from a joystick. Wanna see it?

For many decades, we used to have spotlight operators climb up into the overhead trusses during shows. Now they can do it from the ground. Not only is this safer, it prevents other problems, like the time someone working up above during our show called lighting director Tom Kenny. He explained that he had to go to the bathroom, but was 40 feet in the air above the show. Tom told him to “hold it in” – No way to get down (or up) during a show. He wasn’t as prepared as some who bring up an empty bottle, just in case. Sadly, the guy couldn’t hold it! And a poor guy who ran our screen controls on the side of the stage nearly got showered from above! Afterward, the embarrassed and damp overhead spotlight operator climbed down, took off his harness and walked right out, never to return again.

Another great moment from our tour; the PRG GroundControl™ spot operators are local people, we hire them to work just for the night’s show. Our man Iestyn Thomas trains them before the show and assigns them seats and a subject to follow. He once asked the team, “Do any of you know which ones are Roger and Pete?” To which one clever fellow replied “Roger has the long blonde hair!” Not quite, anymore. We were afraid he’d be lighting our favorite cellist Audrey Q Snyder all night, so Iestyn had to correct him!

As the orchestra take their break, Roger comments, “And now we go back to being a little band, that once was a little band that made a BIG noise a long time ago! That’s why we’re stone-f***ing deaf!” Then noting that he and Pete swear a lot onstage, “I can’t help it, we’re English and we swear a lot!”

Peter talks about the orchestra here, all local players who “volunteer to be deafened!” and mentions that he was initially reluctant to play with them. He knew it would work, as Roger had done it before with his Tommy orchestral tour. But he said he feared a problem, as “most of my solos are bum notes and I’m jumping about onstage.” But then, he noted, it really has worked and he’s loving the experience. I’d told him once about working with Keith Emerson in London with an orchestra; the conductor had warned Keith he was playing too much. “You’re no longer in a three-piece rock band, having to cover most of the parts!” was his advice – sound like a similar situation? Pete is free now, free to be just “the composer” – as Beethoven rarely attended his own concerts. But as a musician, it’s also freeing to be able to play against a powerful backing – and we’re getting a lot of great results from this band making that work. It’s a challenge, but it’s exciting and sounds amazing when the stars align at several points in the show.

Pete adds that he often looks over at the violin section as he’s jumping about the stage, and the string players look so envious, saying “We wish we could do that!!”

All in all, a fun, loose night. The sound was tricky – nice onstage but sometimes difficult for some of the crowd. Yet the laughter and amazing symphonic Who sound works in many different ways to bring each show something unique and magical. This has been a great tour – memorable in so many ways! We look forward to the last few shows, coming up.


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
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)

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