Brian Kehew's Backstage Blog

The Who Hits Back! Tour: Derby, 14 July 2023

This is SO different.

We came from the hustle and bustle of intense London, a hub of modernism and progress, a modern indoor arena, and dry all day. Not here, in Derby. We’re playing in a cricket ground, probably the kind of place you might see the original Who in 1964 or ’65. Sure, the stage is MUCH bigger than those early days; it’s huge (and we have an orchestra). But it’s the same kind of countryside scene and crowds who roll in from various external towns and villages, some locals, of course.

Our crew’s hotel is right next to the cricket ground, literally upon it. As you’ll see in one of the first photos from my rooms window, I can see them setting things up the day before. When morning rolls around we can walk across to the event. Everywhere there are sports signs and settings, even nets around the area they’ve designated as our catering/meal room. And the dressing rooms are locker rooms – although that’s also pretty common in arenas we play everywhere.

It’s wet on and off today, some rain but also some non-rain, so we’re not fully complaining. Plus, it promises to be all over by about 6.00pm, so the show should be alright. Whether that will affect our attendance tonight I doubt it. These people are used to it, and besides – we’re not here often – this is your chance. Although our band has a tough time of it. We’re set up hours early, being so close, but the wait for the band takes a few more hours. There is traffic and major motorway construction on the only route, so we wait and wait. We’re still not onstage rehearsing at the time the doors were supposed to open, but better to wait and hold things back a bit rather than have problems later. There aren’t that many people here early as many of them are also caught in the same stuff.

The band has a nice quick rehearsal/soundcheck, and it’s time to let the folks in. I see the usual crowd, most in their 50s and 60s, but mixtures of all types. I like seeing The Who (non-branded) rain ponchos on-offer, but it seems the rain really is gone. And they’ve done a great selection of foods and drink here, and as you’ll see, some of the carts/vendors have imaginative vehicles to sell their goods from.

Isabella Coulstock is opening the show again, solo acoustic guitar and voice. It’s quieter stuff, but she’s still well-received. And then another strong musical entity: UB40 featuring Ali Campbell! They’ve done one show with us before, in Hull, but I didn’t have time to get into that part. Their classic sound is well-known and equally well-liked by everyone here. They do a smart set of their classics, but also do some great UB40-style covers, like ‘Purple Rain’! People do seem to love it, it’s easy, has some of that reggae/Mod flavour that ties into the old Who culture. Their management is shared with The Who, so we’re happy to give them stage time in front of this crowd that may not normally see them. From the stage there are already thousands here, dancing under the evening sky (it doesn’t set until quite late here) and generally enjoying the evening out.

Video courtesy of Nicola Stragapede

Without much fanfare – I suppose none at all – The Who come on out. To cheers, although nothing crazy like Edinburgh, but appreciative nonetheless and a bit more than fancy London! I predict a good one, as there are great sight-lines here. A standing crowd for the most part (more on this later) means just a sea of thousands of heads. I’m told there is a sound restriction here; many outdoor places have it if they’re near a city, as we are today. So there will be limited volume in the PA, but from the front it does still sound pretty loud to me.

Since both the band, orchestra and audience have been a bit “through the wringer” on the way here, all defences are down, and nobody is trying to be too cool or anything. Simple show, good crowd, no rain – seems good.

“You managed to stop the rain somehow!” Pete talks over his microphone. He acknowledges it was really tough for them (him especially) coming out from London. “Thanks for coming out – and thanks to Isabella Coulstock and UB40 for supporting us tonight!” Not many headliners even know the names of their changing support acts, but Pete is aware and generous enough to mention them right away.

Video courtesy of Broady’s Gig Channel

Immediately, I can tell the sound is nice tonight; at least what I/we hear onstage. That makes it easier to play, and the clarity allows the players to really get into what they’re doing. Pete has a little bit of extra energy too – and that’s immediately apparent. His arms are up and around, not just in playing but in confident gestures and such. He’s playing just a bit more aggressively, and Zak and Pete (a powerful force of rhythm when they lock) are pretty much in-sync. Yes, it’s a Who show, so there is slop somewhere, everywhere, but on the whole I hear more connection happening tonight. And Roger is again in fine form. Sometimes it takes him a song or two but not tonight. Maybe the moist air is helping – certainly can’t hurt.

What makes a good/great/exceptional show? (Notice we don’t HAVE bad shows with The Who; true, I’ve never seen a bad one, even the one that was only about one minute long in Florida was – interesting and exciting!) First off is The Sound, I’d say. Robert Collins is our mixer and he balances things so you get the most emotional impact. He can take a sloppy/rough show and bend it to sound good. No matter what else is happening that night – the sound can move you and convince you. I’ve seen the band come off as unhappy – and the crowd thought it was great.

Next may be the Band’s Performance; if they are hitting it hard, you’ll know – we all know. And that translates not only into great music, but a vibe/attitude onstage that you’ll see and feel from the seats out front. The Look is important – but a great-sounding show could happen in the dark (or on a Live At Leeds album!) Our lights and visual/video content is also a builder; it takes whatever’s happening and enhances it many times. That team really has to have musical values as well, visually they bring up and boost whatever you need to be seeing (or hide it if not, that’s why we have blackouts or dark parts of the stage, not to distract.)

And lastly, I think, sometimes it’s just The Vibe: How does everyone feel – in the band and in the crowd. I’ve seen the band joke honestly about mistakes and flawed performances, and in welcoming in the audience to that admission, it makes it OK and no big deal.

Almost everyone is standing the whole show: That’s great! Then I thought “Oh! Their seats are probably soaking wet!” Except one section down the front on Pete’s side is sitting. We had that also in Edinburgh and London!? No idea why. They are unrelated places. So obviously, it’s not wet seats causing the big standing crowd after all.

I can clearly hear Jon Button’s bass solo section in the instrumental/’Captain Walker’ part of ‘Sparks’ tonight. Jon has that bit, some great Entwistle bursts in ‘5:15’ and the famous ‘My Generation’ solo during the show – a lot more focus than most rock bass players will see in a week!

Video courtesy of the Gazzas

Pete talks about the orchestra “doing bits of Tommy”, as he’s done each night: He mentions it all came about because Roger had played ALL of Tommy on his own tour with orchestra, “. . . didn’t you? Even the bits that were a load of old rubbish!?” Roger cuts in “I didn’t want to tell you!” Peter transitions to the next part of the set, ‘Who Are You’. “Well, enough of that, let’s see how well the orchestra do with this . . .”

Before ‘Eminence Front’, Pete recalls being about four or five years old, and his best friend’s dad was a player in the Bottom 4th Tier of the Derbyshire County Cricket team. Big cheers! Pete says it’s great when those old teams do come back over the years. “This is a cricket ground, is it not?” and someone from the seats yells something. “It’s not doing so well?” Pete answers him; “It’s because they need some fucking money!! I’ll ring Elton John up and see what he can do . . .” During this song, Pete is so into it that he takes Chorus 3 and instead of singing it, just solos like crazy over the band – he’s definitely in a fine mood tonight, loose and playing well.

Video courtesy of the Gazzas 

Before ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’ Roger interjects “We were born with a plastic spoon in our mouths!! Except for Zak on drums, and Loren on keys . . .” Then realizes that ‘Substitute’ is not up next! Pete informs us that he and Roger co-wrote this next one, ‘Anyway Anyhow Anywhere’. Then ‘Substitute’ and into ‘I Can’t Explain’. I like that Pete’s playing ‘I Can’t Explain’ with less distortion – at the moment. When you hear the original, it’s kind of funky, with the stops and starts, gaps between the guitar chords where the drums hit. That’s more like The Kinks or black R&B music of the day, although it’s been more heavy-rock-sounding in recent years the way Pete was playing before this. I remember talking to Pete about early Kinks – he was obsessed. He told me “I listened to nothing else for about six months.”

‘My Generation’ is up next in this great string of 60s singles. Townshend says “I don’t know what we’re trying to prove by playing all these now; we couldn’t even play them right when we were young. Roger likes to play this next one in the original key, and there are 1-2-3-64 key changes in it! Watch for them . . .” and they proceed to play it and mess up the changing sections just as they have done each night so far! No matter, on the whole it still comes out great. Better than not have it!

‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ has multiple BIG endings on it – the whole place is rocking tonight. As our video boys are stationed just behind us (in the wings to the side of the stage) I can see them take a break during ‘The Rock’ – oh yes! They have a video/film to show: Roger’s “history of things in time” that has been compiled, the good and bad of the world. It’s something to watch as the track is simply an instrumental – but probably also the highlight of our orchestral night. Followed soon by ‘Love Reign O’er Me’s piano solo; Loren Gold does one of his best tonight. Even Pete is still feeling something different as he takes the solo from ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ and does it totally opposite – a very quiet, empty part that’s quite nice. It doesn’t build into the big peak that the other way usually does, but it’s a nice introspective moment nonetheless, and Roger nails the big moment and the house comes down afterward. Then ‘Baba O’Riley’ and big thanks, applause then the band come out to line up for a bow: Only Pete has not announced them yet! So standing all arm-in-arm, he singles them out one by one for an intro.

Video courtesy of Danny M 

The crew felt that, given time limits and the energy expended, they may not end with ‘Tea & Theatre’. Well, Roger and Pete have a quick onstage discussing – feeling the same thing, and agree to only a short version, nearly half the usual length. But the meaning and feeling gets across.

Nice one, everyone, no major issues and some moments really had it going. We have definitely hit the “smooth sailing” part of our tour, no more birthing pains at all, it’s a rolling machine.

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
Tea & Theatre