Brian Kehew's Backstage Blog

The Who 2017 Tour: Rock In Rio Festival, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, September 23, 2017

Rio is already legendary – names like ‘Copacabana’ and the famous ‘Girl From Ipanema’ conjure up old visions of this wonderful coastal resort. But in today’s reality, this city’s a mix of many things. Yes, some of that old world still exists here; we saw the beaches and steep mountain ranges of the Andes, the Christ the Redeemer statue high in the clouds atop one peak. But, in the cities, the favelas are the poor neighborhoods, right next to the very wealthy ones. As we drove in from the airport, we came through these rough areas and it was a difficult sight to take in: hundreds upon hundreds of the poorest areas, homes without doors or roofs, dirt and rust and decay everywhere. It’s quite a vision, in a dark way, and a contrast to the lovely hotel and massive festival we’re about to experience.

The Rock In Rio Festival is world-famous, and for many reasons. Number one; it’s huge, with some of the biggest crowds any band will ever face. You’ve probably come across some video from here, as many people film their shows, knowing these enthusiastic young fans will be here in the tens of thousands. Queen, Guns N Roses, KISS, Iron Maiden – all have done iconic shows here, and The Who camp is about to understand what it’s all about.
We’ve done a lot of festivals over the years, and once you pass the size of a normal arena (10,000 or so people) it just looks like an endless sea of people. We had about 65,000 in San Francisco recently, and Hyde Park at about 70,000. Glastonbury about 85,000, I recall – but you can never really know. How many came to see another band – or the whole event? How many tickets are reported ($$) vs. actually sold? Today I am told there are 120,000 tickets sold, but others estimate it’s much more, as it was SO hyper-crowded. Usually at a big festival, you can walk around the crowd at the edges, far from the stage, and go to concessions or restrooms. Here, no such chance – it was rammed to the fences. You could only make passage by pushing through the throngs. It was pretty crazy. I cannot think of any Who show with a bigger audience; possibly somewhere in the past… but this could be The One.

We’d flown in the day before, but had to start work at 7.00am on show day. Guns N Roses were the headliner, so their gigantic stage set was put up overnight, and their crew were finishing all their work as we came in. Within two hours, we took our turn in the morning sun and set out all our equipment. The Who setup is not light or minimal, but it looked very simple and restrained in comparison. Guns N Roses have ramps and steps, “guitar amps” that are really video screens (their amps are offstage) and a large drum platform a few meters up in the air. They are carrying a big rock show everywhere. It’s expensive, no doubt, but certainly will be impressive when they do their set.

Our gear is in place, and the band are not coming in this early, so we “line check’ and just make sure each instrument and microphone works as it should. We’re trusting it will be ok when the band play – just another show. But it’s one of the risks of a festival – no proper soundcheck to test the sound for the band, and you’re playing for thousands who may never have heard you before.

Once things are done, we “roll back” – almost all our equipment was set up on rolling risers, so we simply unplug a few cables and it all zooms off to the backstage area, Only Guns will have their equipment stay out in place for the whole day (usually, that’s us, as we’re headliner most times.) During the day, we are parked in back next to any other groups that will play later.

Evening comes, the sun sets, and thousands of small mosquitos come out. We all spray ourselves to protect against them (Nile virus, Zika, malaria, etc etc – not good!) and get ready. A local Brazilian band plays first, obviously shocked to be on such a grand event. Incubus is next, some of our crew have worked with them. Nice people and good mellower rock band, not the intensity you’ll see in the next two! After Incubus, we roll out. Plug everything in (rather rushed, but we’ve done it here earlier today) and check all the sounds again quickly. It all works and the band is ready in the wings.

(There is a “zip line” to fling audience members across the sky here, not completely unusual, but in this case – it goes right across the front of the stage. We’re sure it’s a big thrill to zoom past your favorite band while they play, but it’s damned distracting to the musicians and the audience if you’re trying to play something serious. We’ve quietly requested that it not be used during our set – and they agree to shut it down.)

The backing musicians saunter out, as they do, and then Pete and Roger come bounding out, obviously happy to be doing this. The settle in, get ready to start, and Pete chants “F***! F***! F***! F***! F***! F***! F***!” loudly into the microphone until the audience joins in. “F***ing – Rock In Rio!!” – and we’re off. “I Can’t Explain” launches those big power chords – and the audience is rocking as far as the eye can see. From the get-go, the band is playing really, really well – noticeably better than usual.

The sound is good – we’re lucky there – and the visuals are impressive. (Guns N Roses big screen looks great with our visuals; they have a different way of working, so our video master Mathieu Coutu chose a different setup that brought us greater clarity and resolution than the headliners!) We used half of their PA system, soundman Robert Collins felt it smeared our sound to have it set up the way they do, so we used half as much of the gear and turned it up; plenty loud, but much clearer this way.

Pete mentioned we are playing with Guns N Roses as well, and said “It’s gonna be a great night. You’re all going to go home in pieces!” It was not a daylong festival (the kind that have eight bands throughout the day), but the heat and effort to work through the thick crowd must have drained everyone. As in São Paulo, there was a loud contingent chanting for ‘Magic Bus’. It’s been years since they regularly played that song – and like ‘Squeezebox’, it’s not a favorite to do. As Pete once said in Monaco “It’s a stupid song, I know; I wrote it.” It is a fun song, simple and appealing, but it won’t likely get played.

Instead, Pete launched into what he thought was the next song (it was not on the setlist at all!); ‘Bargain’! Not only did the band snap into it, but they adjusted incredibly well – new bassist Jon Button caught it first and signalled the others – Pete usually plays the song with a guitar detuned a half-step lower. SO – our band had to fake their way through it in a different key and fingering than they are used to. I don’t think anyone noticed the fear – and grins – of the band struggling to work out the parts on-the-fly. At the end Pete looked down at his setlist onstage, and said “I’ve been playing the wrong f***ing song!!” and realized the whole band (well, the ones with strings and keys) had to follow him through unprepared and in a different key. Professionals at work, here…

Now everyone was in a quandary; we only have a limited time onstage, but now we’ve added five minutes of music that was not scheduled. Will we skip one song now or skip one later, or not at all?? For video crew, guitar technicians, etc – it’s hard to work not knowing which song will be next. “What do we do?” Pete asked Roger. Mr Daltrey then called it; ‘Behind Blue Eyes’, which was next on the setlist. As it happens – we did not cut any songs, the audience heard one extra unplanned song, and all was well. Despite the lack of blue eyes in this audience (and nearly everyone has the dark hair) – the song was a smash. Roger was strong as he’s ever been, until a small flub on the very last part of the very last note – then he tried to juggle a few odd extra bits in, which did not go well either. But the main part of it was a powerhouse performance! Roger, as he does, giggled about it after the end. He ought to be proud to be the only guy singing as well as he does at that age, most never even get there at any age. The song has become a moment to settle down and listen. Over and over, this is the comment we hear after shows, from newcomers “He’s really still got an amazing voice…” Yeah, nobody in The Who is perfect (it’s not allowed) and Roger lets go the little slips now and then, often laughing about his own moments when they happen. It really improves the mood in a show when a band doesn’t worry about things going wrong now and then.

During ‘Join Together’, Pete yelled that he could dance, but the audience could not. What he meant was the packed bodies could not even move, much less dance freely. “You’re all squished together!” As a joke, during the song’s brief breaks – he did rather silly dance moves. Afterward, he said that he could dance, and they were stuck, but those in the audience would realize he “dances like their father does…”

‘I’m One’ was beautiful, a nice calmer moment in the show (always important to have beautiful quiet parts, otherwise it gets too bang-bang-bang throughout.) Pete took a longer time doing a sort of Jobim-style guitar intro, and then did a quick false-start and restart into the song. Those unplanned guitar and spoken bits are often the reason it’s great to see this band; others’ shows are so controlled and tight that nothing spontaneous is allowed to happen.

Again tonight, ‘5:15’ doesn’t go over well. It’s probably good we’re not playing more Quadrophenia stuff for this crowd. Save it for when it works. Thanks to GnR, we have some benefits today: Some of their video crew help us man the cameras, so we get better visuals on the screens. They also had this huge stage set ringing around our stuff, so I could sometimes leap onstage a grab a cool shot from above the stage-level looking out.

No encores at all today – the way shows have ended usually recently: ‘Baba’/’WFGA’ – and on ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ Pete did a knee slide after the drum solo. Not a long smooth glassy slide – not possible on most modern stage surfaces – but an effort that is always appreciated by the crowd. Drums are wailing, Pete is sliding, Roger is screaming that scream, the lights are blinding – it’s quite a rock-and-roll moment. This music is almost designed for live performance, and here it comes to fruition.

Roger closed the show by saying Guns N Roses were back and in possibly better form than the old days. They have been on a high point recently, with custom video and effects just for the Rock In Rio shows. Following us, GnR did well, too – although it was evident from the parking lot that thousands had come JUST to see The Who. GnR are back with three original members and have (like us) more keyboard players than are needed at most moments. But their big show is great for huge audiences like this. Honestly, The Who show was about as strong, easily. We had a shorter set = more energy. Almost all the songs were known by the audience, and this band played so well with an honest presentation. Roger and Pete have a friendly collaboration onstage, something I didn’t see so much with the other bands. We were pleased to see The Who do so well tonight (you never know, a show can go sideways for so many reasons.) One has to be impressed by a crowd this big, double the size of our Hyde Park sellouts, and the noise they can make is unbelievable. We played a 90 minute show – about 30 minutes less than a full Who event, but this let the band have extra energy throughout. (In contrast, Guns N Roses did about 3 1/2 hours, which is a marathon; many hits, deeper album cuts and more soloing and other filler.) I saw a few weary souls dragged from the crowd into a wheelchair by the local medics. It was indeed tough to be here, but we’re so thankful they all came – and hopefully got a lot from it… and went “home in pieces!”

This show was momentous. But it’s the next one that I’m really looking forward to.


Tonight’s Set List