Brian Kehew's Backstage Blog

The Who Hits Back! Tour: Badminton Estate, Sunday 16 July 2023

What a day. We just finished a 16-17 hour day to get through this one. Yeah, it’s always worth it, but certainly something we hope not to repeat anytime soon!

We are staying in the town of Bristol, absolutely one of the most-enjoyable cities for things to see and do in all of the UK. Because this venue is pretty far from the hotel, and along small country roads, we all have to travel together at once. Maybe we’ve not discussed this very often, but our crew of workers usually arrives at staggered times: Rigging are often first, they have to do things before anyone else can work – otherwise you just have people sitting around. Lighting and Sound crews often soon after; their work depends on the rigging overheard, and our Production team (offices, logistics, dressing rooms, catering needs) will go in quite early as well. We have stages to build, things to unpack and hang or stack, so much to do. A few hours later the rest of sound, lights, and the onstage-instruments crew will arrive when it’s ready enough for them to unpack and start their work.

As I said, today because of the distance, we all travel together. No big deal, we’re all good soldiers and do what we’re told. But this is in a field: almost no phone reception, limited internet, and not much of a backstage here; some cabins and things, no luxury (although someone had hired-in special outdoor toilet cabins that even had sparkle seats?! News to me, and weird way to try and be fancy. Effort noted.)

We arrive after 8:30am to begin a loooong day of work. Iestyn Thomas, our fabulous lighting crew chief, has been here with his own team the last couple of days making sure everything overhead is rigged and ready to go for the show. It was incredibly wet for them, raining buckets for most of that, plus some winds that made it almost dangerous, and they would have to cease work if it exceeded certain levels of wind. Luckily for us and them, it didn’t get that bad. But no fun, I hear, and now it’s a grassy mud bath all around. Be careful where you step, I see people slip and slide all day long.

Where is this place?

It’s another big green grassy sort of a hillside, surrounded by many miles of enormous grounds. Essentially it’s a massive estate, around a private family home about 300 years old. It’s been the home land to the Dukes of Beaufort since the late 1600s, called the Badminton Estate (yes, there seems to be some murky history possibly tying this to the game of badminton.) It is the home to the Duke and Duchess of Beaufort, who allow this summertime festival to be hosted on their land. (They also host other things like fancy weddings, filming, special events, etc. Rod Stewart just played here a couple of weeks ago.) (Ed: It’s famous for the annual Badminton Horse Trials, Brian)

It’s sort of like Woodstock in shape and size, a long sloping hill that can house thousands, and the producers have brought in infrastructure: Security, bathrooms, ticket offices, emergency vehicles, fences, this giant stage, parking areas, and a backstage compound made of various trailers. Plus the all-important catering tent  where we will eat all three meals today. Eat To The Beat is a professional catering team for touring acts, usually musical concerts like ours, and they’ve been hired to do several of the shows on this UK tour. They provide a nice selection of things healthy, savoury, sweet, filling, etc. (meaty and vegetarian/vegan) for every meal.

Our setup is ok – despite the on/off rain, we have good cover for the stage, and many things were done and out of the way from the previous days’ work. They have a crew of local hired workers who help us unload and unpack all our gear. And we set about to get everything ready. The difference is (everything is just WEIRD today) we don’t have any rehearsal or soundcheck: it’s too far out, so the orchestra and band won’t be here until later. Besides, we have not only Ali Campbell’s UB40 opening, we have another full band, called Listening Device. I’m told this band is the pet project of the Duke of Beaufort himself, Henry Somerset, and he’ll be the lead singer. Again, not the usual day, izzit!?

They open the doors early, as there’s more time to get people in: The roads are minimal out here, more like country lanes, and only one or two ways to access the place for thousands of fans; another bit that’s like Woodstock (which had some issues). The main entrance is very distinctive – along one stone wall is a large arched building, also made of beautiful stonework. It’s called the Worcester Lodge and is visible from anywhere on the site, as it sits at the crest of the hill behind the audience area. Dubbed “one of the ten best buildings in England” (not sure why) it’s pretty impressive, not your usual arena or theater gate; again, SO different here!

Then upon entering, you have dozens of pretty fine and varied food trucks. I’ve never ever seen a line as long for a merch stand as I do today (t-shirts etc). Maybe they just want to warm up and buy some more layers to put on? I see the usual green parkas, but also heavy raincoats and some plastic ponchos. People here are prepared. Behind the large seating area, there is the usual sloped lawn going up, but it’s too wet and muddy to sit easily there – though some try. Not a good place for a blanket, but I don’t see any of those.

I hear there are a large amount of guests tonight – ours and the other bands. It’s common that many successful people move away from the big city out to countryside homes and estates, so likely a lot of that crowd will be here. I know Jeremy Clarkson, who most know now from Top Gear, is here tonight. (Have you seen Season 1 of Top Gear, where they work with The Who crew at Hyde Park to move our equipment? Yes, we were there at the beginning!) Also drummer Martin Chambers, of the wonderful Pretenders is here; they are one of Pete’s favorite bands. Their first album was done in the same studio with the same producer as Pete’s incredible Empty Glass.

We get started with Listening Device, who are set up right in front of UB40’s instruments (and ours behind, pushed back as far as we can manage to make room.) Their music is good, sort of mid-tempo moody rock. I’d say it fits in nicely to 1972, if you know that era of Bowie or Van der Graaf Generator maybe. They have guitar, bass, drums, keys, and two backing vocalists, one of whom plays violin too. People are receptive, although I’m sure some are neighbors or friends of the Duke himself – always good to have local support. Ali’s UB40 do their bit, always very welcome and get the crowd into a quite positive mood. Maybe assisting this is the fact that the sky has cleared – we have only a few clouds now and then, and no rain at all for the rest of the night! A very, very welcome feeling . . .

Then onto The Who. Same as usual – which you probably know. Tommy starts, but not before Roger gets in his comments: “At last it stopped raining . . . July in England, so much for the heat wave!!” I do believe he’s referencing the worldwide heat that is dangerously affecting so many countries – but not us, here. This is our July – wet and cloudy for most of our shows!

I notice the backing vocals sound great tonight – for some reason, or maybe it’s just me. But each night, it ought to be the same sound (or similar) but many things do change.

Heart of England Philharmonic, Brummies, weddings, West End musicals.

Video courtesy of the Gazzas

‘Who Are You’ – many of us notice the guitar on this one, he’s really back in the old fiery spirit. Yes, things have progressed/changed over the years, but you see it in his animation and level of engagement onstage; Pete is feeling much more in-control. Rather than “playing along” with the music, he’s really leading and pushing it forward. That’s great, what people really enjoy. There is some burning guitar on this song, a good sign for the remainder of the show.

Unexpected, he says something just as the track starts – “This is a political song”

Pete’s having a lot of extended conversations onstage with guitar tech Simon Law. It’s one sign of his comfort that he doesn’t rush the talk, even mid-show, as others would. But it’s a sign of something’s not-quite-right if they are having those talks. Ah well . . . we hope for the best.

Roger and Pete talk about the crowd coming out to the Badminton Estate. And Roger mentions something about the Gloucestershire countryside, and Pete interjects that, technically this is the South Gloucestershire countryside! I’m sure the locals appreciate it. Speaking of – I’d promised some more about our orchestra. At one point, Pete says “I don’t have my card telling me their name” (a simple thing I’d written and taped to his floor rug before the first show: He likes to announce and give everyone credit, so we’d done similar signs for Katie and Audrey when they joined, as well as Randy Landau on bass a tour ago. The sign had gone somewhere, so someone needed to remind him of their name. I’ve looked up most of the players. Many are from Birmingham (a great music town!) and have the usual variety of jobs: String players have ensembles and quartets that play weddings etc, as do the brass groups. Many play concert music for a living, but also do West End musicals, studio work – whatever is available. Most of our players are in their 40s and 50s; old enough to be seasoned professionals, but young enough to enjoy the harder days on the road, such as this.

During the band set, we always have some “moments” . . .

Roger always identifies with the common man/woman and leans away from most things posh. “Like a lot of you, I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth” Roger starts in, then Pete tried to correct him, as he did in the last show. But tonight, Roger’s in the right. It IS indeed time for ‘Substitute’!

Video courtesy of the Gazzas including a glimpse of Mr Kehew at the beginning

‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’ is up next, and there’s a surprise most people wouldn’t notice. Pete has called for a Rickenbacker 12-string electric guitar, what he’d played on the original record, his main guitars back in those Mod days. It looks cool, very much the image and guitar he’d first been seen with. However, as we had no soundcheck today, that guitar has never been tried through this rig, and it has many controls/options to set on the guitar alone. Plus – it’s a bit lower in output, a thinner sound than the custom Fender Stratocasters he’s known for playing. Regardless, the lack of tone or something sets Pete off, and the song is pretty much a shambles! Not totally, but it’s weak and hard to follow. Roger does not seem pleased – it may not be the guitar’s fault that they didn’t make it through the song well, but it’s certainly the factor that one notices. (I suspect we won’t see it onstage again)

Then Pete’s back to the Fender guitar for ‘I Can’t Explain’ and it sounds as it should, and much easier to do some soloing on. His guitar work is changing again. For the better, in the most part; although he always plays some wild “off” parts – but that’s only because he’s trying to do new and exploratory things. Without question, in ‘Who Are You’ and others, he was hitting some new heights. There will always be people that want “the old Who days” back – would be nice, for sure. But those days never had these moments, so there IS something to look forward to; new guitar work, as his mind and fingers have come up with some new things that are quite fresh and exciting. I’m pretty sure that lead guitar exploration is THE highlight of the show for Pete, too. He knows the songs are great, enjoys playing and hearing them, crowds and money are good, but it’s obvious from his body motion and energy that these solo moments turn into the real reward of playing live once again.

We see a nice example of the raw moment coming alive: ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ – definitely had a weak ending – at first. I saw Pete then hit his pedalboard a few times with his hands, then turned around and faced Zak and the band. After the song is done, he starts up the ending section by himself to take everyone a second time around, and that ending hits harder and more solidly. Done – and definitely we all knew it was not planned.

Quadrophenia and The Mods: I’m seeing all the Mod haircuts, stripey clothes and olive parkas in the crowd: The Quadrophenia album (and subsequent film) did something very special. The Mod scene was definitely “a thing” in its day, a real historical scene. It starts in the 1950s with modern jazz lovers (Mods) who dressed very cool and loved amphetamine dancing. It all peaked in the public scene of 1964, with Mary Quant and the commercial art world also joining in. The Who (and a few others like the Small Faces) were iconic bands in that short era. But Pete’s 1973 album composition and story really encapsulated and defined that era forever. Now, so much of what is known and continues to affect lives today is that real era filtered through the lens of his Quadrophenia. It’s hard to know what’s real and what’s those impressions of those days because Quad is such an epic view of it. We think of Mod dances as what’s seen in the film, but Pete told me it actually changed every damn week, what was “in” and what was last week’s dance. Can you think of breakfast for any other musical time period? No, of course not. But I bet you consider a fried egg definitely a part of a Mod’s routine, for example! And how long should your zoot suit side-vents be? We know, because he wrote it . . .

Video courtesy of the Gazzas – where would we be without them? 

Roger mentions that it’s been 60 years now that they’ve been doing this! It’s hard to pinpoint a date, because The Detours was their band, and Doug Sandom their drummer (replaced soon by Keith Moon). So without question, they’ve had MORE THAN 60 years of work onstage together, he and Pete – and no doubt there ought to be some sort of notable public thingy when the official 60 Years Anniversary happens in 2024. (Considering that any group is lucky to have even ten years together, like The Beatles. The only rivals are their old mates, the Rolling Stones, who are still at it and doing very, very well.)

After ‘Baba O’Riley’ – introductions and bows. No ‘Tea & Theatre’ afterward tonight; I think there are time issues. Besides, though it’s a great moment, it’s not always the best way to end a big general-audience show with a song most people don’t know. ‘Baba O’Riley’ – that’s a memorable end to anything! I think ‘Baba O Riley’, ‘Listening to You’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ have all been contenders for “greatest closing song ever” – and this band has three of them!!

We need some rest, lucky to have a proper day off to recover, sans mud and rain!

Onward . . .

Tonight’s Set List

With Orchestra
Amazing Journey
The Acid Queen
Pinball Wizard
We’re Not Gonna Take It
Who Are You
Eminence Front

Band Only
The Kids Are Alright
You Better You Bet
Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere
I Can’t Explain
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