Brian Kehew's Backstage Blog

Teenage Cancer Trust shows 2024: Monday 18 March

Royal Albert Hall, London

Well, what a challenging day. We knew it would be . . . something. When they announced the Teenage Cancer Trust shows, we all said “WITH orchestra?” because the Royal Albert Hall is not that big. But we have The Who band, not a small stage footprint, plus the orchestra, plus the opening act, Squeeze. For a few months, people worked on the details (mainly Roy Lamb, longtime – and evidently not retired – tour manager). The solution was to use an upper level – where the pipe organ sits, about four metres above the stage itself. Our percussionists will go back there, all the tympani, drums, bells, vibes, etc. Four players and a lot of equipment. That gives us room to move the brass behind the drums (usually far behind Pete) and the woodwinds shift over far to the side. It will be tight on the violin side. It’s not just getting them in a spot because if you’re right next to a guitar amp or something loud, it just doesn’t work for performing on a smaller acoustic instrument. Space is what we need and there’s not much available.

A sighting backstage of the legendary Bobby Pridden!

The Royal Albert Hall; a legendary venue, and traditional as it gets. So many great names: Cream, Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Clapton, and thousands more. It still looks and feels old, but in a refined, upscale way, a beautiful oval theatrical space. The most-modern addition was many decades ago, to fix a bad echo/bounce off the domed ceiling. They hung curved circles of fibreglass to spread the sound around, and it not only solved the audio problem, it made the sound exceptional and soft in here. A further, unexpected benefit; it catches light and allows placement of LED lighting rigs among the structural supports and the round diffusers so that everything always looks cool as hell. As you’ll see in these photos (I’m no great photographer) every damn shot looks just amazing. Our lighting man, Tom Kenny, knows how to use the space well. He, and our sound man Robert Collins, have done countless shows here, it’s nothing new; home territory. Later at our soundcheck, Roger asked Robert Collins “How does it sound out there?” To which Robert replied, “It sounds like the Albert Hall!” which is a good thing indeed.

Setting up – that was another of our fears. Not only do we have to squeeze our “12 pounds in a 10-pound box” tonight, the loading-in process is ultra-slow. In the olden days (even when I started with The Who about twenty-plus years ago, we had to roll cases up and down the sloped steps between the seats to get them to the stage. They’d put down boards to make a ramp, and “all hands on deck” to get the wheeled cases in and out. In recent years, they added an elevator (a lift, in England) that comes up from below the stage, right out where the seats on the left are in the audience. This makes things faster but it’s far from fast. And you need to plan the entry in stages: the big things that must be in-the-back have to come out first, then unpacked, then send those cases back down. Then the next and so on, a careful staging and sequence of things – all more work and hassle than a normal day at one of our concerts. Our monitor desks (the sound for the band) usually live off to the right side of the stage, on Pete’s side. Today, they have to be up upstage (behind him) so it’s another thing that’s a bit weird.

Eventually, we get it all in and race to put it all together, running cables is even harder, all the hundreds of wires that connect everything. We are wall-to-wall here, but it’s gonna work out. We are quite a ways behind today, and that might affect the rehearsal schedule of orchestra and The Who. Struggle as we might, all the times get pushed back at least an hour, and we’re barely able to get it all done. Yet, it happens, doors will open roughly on-time, and the show must/will go on.

Today will be a different blog, because tonight was “a different show”. I’m not gonna say it was GOOD – but it was definitely memorable and so much fun. It was wild, it was loose, it was funny, it was rough. But in the end –as you’ll see/hear – it all came together and (a) The Who show happened, and (b) no one will forget this one! When things go wrong with The Who, it can become a great night!

Video courtesy of evmö_ M

Squeeze are a fantastic choice to open the show. As support acts go, it’s probably comparable to when we had Elvis Costello support us at the Felt Forum in NYC; classic English pop/rock band, with GREAT songs, amazing vocals and players. It’s not that close to our music, but something close enough and very, very enjoyable. Of course, we’ve played a massive stadium here, so the Albert Hall with 5000 seats IN LONDON; of course it will sell out – without any opening act. But adding Squeeze on really made it a night you’d want to see. Whatever the tickets cost, it’s a hell of a deal, and all for a great cause.

5,000 smartphones light up the auditorium

Speaking of  which, that’s why we’re here. Roger (mainly) and Pete have done this great charity work, and I encourage you to take a moment and think about it. As Roger says, if a 16-year-old gets cancer, it’s awful to put them in with the clowns and balloons of the little kids; they are young adults. But it’s worse to put them in a facility right next to 89-year-old people at their end of life. So they’ve created and funded special wings in hospitals around the world. They have guitars, books, video games, other pals to meet, cool things to do – and caring workers. 32 MILLION POUNDS have been raised to-date, and more to come. It’s an astounding idea: As Roger says “Our music business and our careers have been built on the lives of teenagers the world over; it’s time to support them in return,” Yeah! Have a look at Teenage Cancer Trust in the UK (and Teen Cancer America in the USA): we have great auctions of cool Who stuff, give a little and I’ll give you something today in-return!

Today I’ve got some audio from the show. As I said, it was loose, rough, whatever. But in typical Who fashion, Rog and Pete made light of it all, laughed through the issues, and made what would normally be a crash into a highlight. Over and over and over. It became a running joke how badly things were going. (That’s not to say that there weren’t great moments; there always are, many of them. But the proportion of “issues” was very high tonight.) So, rather than trying to capture the fast-flying words and momentary giggles of this show, I’ve gotten the microphone audio from Roger and Pete to upload for you all – you can hear them do it. Yeah, it’s not a bad idea. We don’t get all the cool music, the sound of 5,000 people laughing or all the perspective of being there; but you’ll still laugh and love it. Eight minutes of the best of it . . . here you go.

Even with the full orchestra seated around the band, we started off a little differently. For the last five years, we opened with the grand ‘Overture’ from Tommy. Tonight it’s ‘I Can’t Explain’, a very good choice, very traditional. Except Pete starts with the plinkiest, smallest-sounding guitar tone ever! (I always though it would be cool to hear them play it as it once was in the early days, that original record is funky! Tight and punchy, slinky like a Kinks track it was meant to be. But for many decades now, it’s been a real rocker, a powerful and stunning opener instead.) Pete’s guitar sound was obviously meant to be dialled back from that heavier tone, but somehow went way beyond a ’60s clean sound into very little left. Still, a few seconds in, the band hits and we’re off to the races. Another gaffe, right out of the box, though: Roger starts ‘I Can’t Explain’ holding out his two tambourines. Oops, that’s meant to be for Tommy and the ‘Overture’, not this one! Ah well. Rough start, maybe it will get better!

Next up, an abbreviated Tommy set but still, quite a few songs from it. At the end, Pete admits frustration, as this wasn’t planned and he wasn’t quite ready for it. (For the exact moment and wording, see the audio clips we’ll post up today.) He asks who is responsible for this setlist. It has been Keith Levenson, our conductor, for most shows with the orchestra. Only Keith works with hands-tied as he’s not allowed many significant changes. But not tonight, it’s not Keith’s doing. “I did it!” claims Billy Nicholls “. . . because no one else would.” Billy then receives a load of comments and torture throughout the night for this admission. (Secretly, I’ll tell you that Billy technically did make the list but they were not his choices; he’s falling on the grenade for someone else, as I saw Billy a bit upset earlier today that the show was losing the fascinating changes I mentioned in the last blog, and just going back toward “the same old show we’ve always been doing.” But that was two days ago, and it went away magically! Sorry, Bill.) Pete thinks they have different set lists maybe, but Roger says he has one “I’ve got the list, yes, but it means absolutely f**k all because I can’t see it!” Pete: “But I think I’ve rehearsed it now, so we can do it again?”

The horn section is actually behind a set of clear plastic screens to keep the levels down, and still they are blasting everywhere! It is what it is here , in a building constructed in 1871 across the street from the massive Hyde Park. But it was created for acoustic music and we are all a BIT louder now!

Rough as it is, Pete says that we’re all here “among friends” knowing this is an intense (and lucky) set of Who fans. Pete notes the setlist is the same as Sandringham, our last show previous to this, so he tells anyone who’s here from that gig that they can “f*** off now!” (Again, best heard in the audio posted today…) He says that he understands the orchestra is donating their time tonight for the charity’s benefit. “The Heart of England Orchestra”, Roger announces them, correctly! But they’ve already walked off! This night continues.

This short Tommy leads into ‘Who Are You’ and more of the hits. I notice Zak is playing really well. Extra energy and drive tonight. Pete’s voice is kinda rough on ‘Eminence Front’, but the song has always leaned that way, vocally, in recent years, so it fits. And his guitar playing is soaring and sustaining, sounds great. The orchestra get up to leave, and Pete mentions.

‘Who Are You’ video courtesy of evmö_ M

Pete really has some guitar issues  which is another frustration for him. At one point, we have to stop, as he’s getting weird sounds (or lack of good sounds) from his amp. Simon Law, guitar tech, moves out and I pull the old one away while he quickly installs a new one. For the orchestra shows Pete has only one main amp (a Fender Vibro-King and with an added 12″ cabinet). Pete has some great back-and-forth with the crowd, who are indeed very vocal tonight! I will detour for a personal story . . . seeing The Who outside Sacramento, California in 2000 I was invited up by Alan Rogan to see the show, meet the band etc for the first time. But I remember one moment vividly. Pete’s amp was acting badly and they had some crew some out to move the old one away as we did tonight. Roger joked “Pete – I think you LIKE it when men come out and handle your equipment!” Tons of laughs. So Pete retorts; “Roger, at least I HAVE equipment!” Brilliant.

Speaking of guitars, Pete has done something back at rehearsal; he’s asked the guitar tech to disconnect the neck pickup (the lesser-used one) on a couple of guitars. He wants to do something he remembers from the old days: So tonight, he tells the crowd he used to play Rickenbackers in the 60s “which seemed to fall apart in my hands” (laughs)” “I’ve had this, adapted. Watch this . . .” and then he proceeds to play a big sustaining chord and toggle the switch back and forth, the stuttering sound like a machine gun as the guitar feeds back. It sounds great. Roger says “I want one of them!” Just a quick demo for the crowd. And people love hearing talk of the Old Days, Rickenbackers, and tech talk. As long as they keep it interesting like this, with a nice clear demo.

Quadrophenia stuff happens; always very popular with a Who crowd. Funny to think it’s a legendary album (arguably their best, but with serious competition!) Pete’s voice is still rough on ‘I’m One’, but he always sounds good, regardless. Loren Gold manages to sneak in a bit of The Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’ on his piano solo tonight; “Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall . . .” Very clever!

There’s a full week of amazing shows here at the Albert Hall. After our show, someone asked the manager, Bill Curbishley, “Are you coming back tomorrow night?” He said “What’s on tomorrow?” They told him it was going to be a big comedy show.

“I’ve already heard it. That was tonight!!”


Tonight’s Set List

Band Only
I Can’t Explain

With Orchestra
Play Video
Amazing Journey
Play Video
Play Video
Pinball Wizard
Play Video
We’re Not Gonna Take It
Play Video
Who Are You
Play Video
Eminence Front

Band Only
The Kids Are Alright
You Better You Bet
My Generation
Cry If You Want
Won’t Get Fooled Again
Behind Blue Eyes

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