Brian Kehew's Backstage Blog

The Who Hits Back! Tour: Florence, 17 June 2023

Florence – one of the places we’ve not played before during my time with the band, 20+ years now. It’s one of those old, old cities – statuary and ancient buildings from so many centuries ago. You can sort of feel the presence of the past – especially in the scale of things that could be done then: Yes, we do skyscrapers now, but massive buildings and gardens – these things you might see at Versailles and never nowadays. The city itself seems focused on tourism, as there’s so much to see, but it’s a lot of leather clothing, purses, jackets, shoes. Then jewellery, trinkets like refrigerator magnets, and t-shirts and bags with Florentine images. Lots to see, but they’re certainly focused on the outsider coming in . . .

Firenze Rocks Festival – yeah, they say things in English all over the world, like “rocks” as it’s become the default universal language. Even all over town, no doubt because of the tourists, many of the signs are in plain English – “Ladies Shoes On Sale Today!” But “Firenze” – it’s one of those things I learned traveling years ago; many cities have a true local name and an “English translation name”. Why, I don’t know, because Berlin is Berlin, Toronto is Toronto, New York is New York. But Firenze to the locals is Florence, Italy as we outsiders know it. In Germany, München is what the locals call our Munich. Koln is what the locals say, we say Cologne, Germany. Cairo has many different names in Egypt. It’s a proper name, so I never understand why it needs a translation, and others don’t. Regardless, we now agree that Firenze does indeed rock, and you’ll see why . . .

This is an outdoor festival, one of those huge stages, with a sort of village of small buildings behind for a backstage area; dressing rooms, catering, production offices. They put out some trees and Astroturf grass, so we don’t have to walk around on mud or dirt. There are hammocks and chairs, football tables for fun. Pretty standard stuff now, and costs a bit but makes everyone’s experience pretty pleasant. Yes, the air-conditioning is quite welcome as it’s certainly hot outside still. We came in to set up a day early; because this is a festival, we need to rehearse the local orchestra, and the whole day will be filled with other bands. So we need to prep and rehearse today with all the gear – and a screen across the stage to shield everyone from the sun. But then, at least, tomorrow is the show day without any setup to do, just walk in and play. We spend almost the whole day though, building the stage and lights, plus orchestra and band rehearsal – we leave at night, feeling as if we have done a show’s worth of work. It’s a little strange.

Today was a half “day off” and most of the band and crew took the time to walk around the city. Then in for the show. Local bands were playing before us, Italian rockers mostly. They had good energetic shows and were well-received, classic hard rock, so the audience liked it. Next up, Tom Morello – former guitarist of Rage Against the Machine, now doing his solo tour. Pete went to meet him before the show, and then Tom delivered a powerful set; he’s chosen his band well. Similar styles to Rage, so his fans will be pleased. And he delivered some classic music of that band at the end, followed by singing ‘Power to the People’ as a chant with the crowd. Unbelievably – bands always play too long at festivals; they love their time in front of a big crowd and want to show off. But today, both Tom and the band before him went 10 minutes under their allotted stage time?! Wow – unheard-of behavior, but very welcome. And they had already been given a very generous 45-minute changeover time between Tom’s show and ours, so now we had 55 minutes before our show – quite a long wait.

It’s a sea of brunettes tonight – a classic Italian crowd, having some wine/beer and being loud. The cheering even starts before The Who come out, and some of the orchestra are leading the crowd on, getting up and encouraging them to yell and cheer. A good mood is born. Rog and Pete come out to this warm welcome, and things start out fine. The usual.

For this show, we have a huge single screen right behind the orchestra (I suspect that’s because there’s not room to hang the two side screens we usually have, and one bigger screen is more-easily seen by a huge crowd.) The video team and Tom Kenny have started our Tommy set with a simple image a shot of instruments and Who stuff that I made just before the first tour with orchestra began. (We needed something new for the passes that year, so I went to a prop house and put a Rickenbacker 12-string, one of Roger’s microphones, and some orchestral instruments in a big pile and photographed it.) The image really makes the point BUT is kind of artsy; it’s static but doesn’t take too much attention away from the show. They made a good choice in this. I like the idea – we’ve run moving animated videos on screens before, but this leaves the attention on the band and orchestra – you look initially at the image, then get back to the stage once this new scene is set. For the show, we gathered some images from artist/webmaster Richard Evans who holds a great Who archive of photos and graphics. The video team gathered some artistic and relevant background things – not active videos, but some did move, like a Union Jack flag that rustles as if blown by wind during ‘Who Are You’. Simple but effective. They had some graphics from a few previous tours, some of rain and vintage Who stage images. They interspersed this with live stage footage and shots of the huge audience – which the crowd loved, seeing themselves on the big screen. Cool stuff – and it made tonight’s show very special.

We have a camera right in front of the stage, for the closeup shots (better than even the front-row seats can get). Our man Scott Williams helms that camera, which rolls back and forth on railroad tracks for smooth motion and access to both sides/angles of Pete/Roger/the band. It seemed the video guys were doing some cool retro-video effects, very much like you used to see on television circa 1970-71. But then I realized – it’s video delay. Let’s get technical for a minute and explain . . .

We have this big screen behind the stage. Everyone can see it but it’s MOST critical for those way in the back. I’d estimate we have 20-30,000 people here today, hard to tell. But that’s pretty far back for those in the rear – they really need a video screen. Here’s where it gets tricky – things move at a certain speed: “Light speed” how fast light moves – it’s really fast, almost instant. Sound moves much slower – and you know this, because if you yell in a canyon (or even a sports court) it “bounces” off the opposite wall and comes back later – an echo or delay of sound. So imagine Zak hitting his snare drum onstage, the video races out to the back people almost immediately, but the sound takes a while maybe one second, to reach the back. If they were runners, the video runs very fast and would outpace our sound runner. So our clever video guys have put a delay, holding back the video signal so that it starts just a bit later – so that the video and slower audio sort of end up together near the back. Because everyone else also sees the video, they have to sort of find a middle-ground, so that people in the front don’t see such a bad delay effect; the people in front get a little timing error when they compare visual to sound (but those people don’t need the screen as much, as they can see the stage clearly without it.)

SO – when the cameras “see” Pete playing guitar on ‘Sparks’, they also “saw” the screen behind him – which is showing Pete playing guitar, but with a visual delay happening. So the effect I was viewing – what everyone saw – was a cool psychedelic effect of video echo: multiple visual repeats of Pete Townshend playing, layered visually and delayed across time on the screen. (I’ll include a photo so you can see it.) In other words, the video team had their delays for our normal screen use, but it caught the effect onto the camera, too, and caused a lovely trippy visual as a happy accident – I think.

Video from the front row centre courtesy of The Gazzas, namely Melissa and Gary Hurley (who else!)

One of our new images behind the band came at ‘5:15’ (the song, not the time!) It’s the wide photo of the key cast members lined up, a great iconic black-and-white image. Sting is the obvious one, he always stands out as the Ace Face. Phil Daniels as Jimmy, etc. Leslie Ash as Steph. If you didn’t know, they actually re-staged this photo with the originals not long ago for one of the rare cast reunions that have happened. Toyah Wilcox, as Monkey, is there, too – and our current stage carpenter and bass tech Mark Sidgwick played bass for Toyah’s first album in the ’80s!

Thinking of Quadrophenia, the film, this is a fine place to mention a real love story: from Simon Townshend and his wife Janie. She’s often along with us – as she is right now – and a very welcome face and presence. I knew their romance had to do with the Quadrophenia film, but I wasn’t sure, so here is what Simon’s just told me of their first meeting: Janie and her friend Julie were cool-looking girls booked as “Mod” models to be photographed for the album booklet inside the original Quadrophenia vinyl record in 1973. Then in 1975, at the red carpet of the London Tommy film premiere, Pete recognized the same girls in the crowd, so he dragged them into the film. At the party afterward, Simon met Janie and fell in love with her, “My life changed forever that night: I fell in love at first sight. We married when I was 17 and she was 18.” Some real Who trivia for you, and a wonderful love story started by this great band.

(More trivia? Ok: For those of you that don’t know, Simon first appeared on that Tommy film soundtrack, singing the track ‘Extra, Extra’ at age 15. He was filmed for the movie by Ken Russell and Pete, singing the song on top of a massive pile of newspapers, but the shot didn’t make the final film.)

When the orchestra leaves for their break, Pete says they changed something in their stage shows: “It’s a step up, or down, or sideways” as it left the band needing more discipline in their playing. Yet this break is about 30 minutes of non-discipline where they get to “play as we used to.” He also mentions ‘The Seeker’ is about the 60s/70s view of spirituality. Pete said he was seeking something, too, God or whatever . . .  but the song came to be one of the important ones in The Who catalogue.

Video courtesy of Vitto.

Video courtesy of Vitto. 

‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ has a nice “raga-rock” almost Indian-style guitar solo, very cool; you never know what’s going to happen. Simon Law (his guitar tech) said they’d really been able to improve the sound of his rig for tonight’s show with a few changes. I remembered we used to do this song with just Rog and Pete and acoustic guitar during early orchestral shows. It was great – a real moment – and they both enjoyed it, but ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ is one of those absolutely perfect concert songs – maybe THE highlight for some. It’s nice to have it back with the original backing organ/synth part and the drum solo and scream; ideal for a big show, probably better than the acoustic version. Yet, it would be cool to see Pete and Rog doing something alone, it’s always very special to see them interact AND hear Roger’s voice and Pete’s acoustic guitar playing so clearly. Maybe both can happen, dynamic ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and acoustic on something else?? Someday.

During ‘The Rock’ the usual film ran showing various world events. It works well here, as we’re doing an instrumental, and even Pete’s fingers are busy – not as much to see in stage movement. So the film is not a political commentary, but it does capture events of all kinds (good and bad) for us to consider our recent history, starting around the time of the band’s formation to the present. For the first time, I notice it’s been updated to include the death of HM The Queen and the coronation of the new King. A slight change, but very current, and reminds us we’re still in the long, ongoing stream of things. Pete’s clearly enjoying ‘The Rock’ this time, it looks and sounds great. He claps twice during the Russian dance section, and the audience follows; it looks a lot like ‘Radio Gaga’ did for Queen at Live Aid, just massive. Then a huge finish with a blast of strings and horns and percussion.

Video courtesy of Vitto.

Just after, Roger emerges, ready for his ‘Love Reign O’er Me’. He’s had a very hot and dry show, tough situation for a singer – we’ve all had pollen and allergies “out here in the fields”. But for the major Olympic event that is called ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ – he’s great, as usual! I even said to myself “wow” as he was so clear and strong on much of this; he sings it like he’s a kid, just fresh to the song with full presence. This is an emotional crowd – very demonstrative – so this song hits hard for them, and they are indeed moved. Really, that song would be enough to finish on, then instantly ‘Baba O’Riley’ kicks in and the crowd explodes. Katie comes on, delights the crowd with the unexpected real violin solo (we had harmonica for so many years) and she looks great on the big screen – everyone can see/feel the big finish.

Indoors, we don’t do “festival seating” anymore (unreserved crowd standing) for obvious reasons, but at a true festival, there is no other option. The benefit, though, is that the REAL fans – those with the most interest, the endurance and desire – they end up in the front rows. It’s not about having the most money – that’s who sits in front at normal indoor shows, not necessarily your biggest fans. So we have distilled these crowds into an intense bunch for at least the first few thousands people – they know the words, they have the experience right in front of their eyes, and they are SO pleased to be seeing their favorite band up-close and personal. It drives the band harder, which drives the audience harder – the cycle that The Who know so well.

Afterward, instead of driving away, both Rog and Pete hung around for ages, well after the crowd was long gone and the stage mostly packed away. I heard incredible laughter and lots of chatting and signing was going on – must have been a great day for them both. Thank you Italy – Firenze Rocks!

Those of you not in the UK – it’s not too late to book your flights for a summer holiday in England; we have a lot of great shows coming up there, plus that polish and power that comes from being back on the road for a few weeks brings the best shows. I know London will be sold-out, but there are many great reasons to visit the UK and see the band in their home territories. And the rest of England – have you ever done it?! I have traveled far to see some bands I love, and it makes the show that much more exciting, for sure.

Onward . . .

(Editor’s note: But before we go we’d like to give you a bit of a bonus for today’s Backstage Blog. Several members of the Who Crew have other talents as well as their road crew responsibilities. For example, Brian Kehew, who writes this blog as well as being our keyboard tech is the editor and author of some great books including Recording The Beatles and books on the Moog synthesiser. And Tom Kenny, our lighting designer is a virtuoso on the Irish uilleann pipes. Well, OK, I made that one up. And then there is Dan Norris, Zak’s drum tech who, it turns out is an extremely talented photographer. We’re going to features several of Dan’s great shots on here, starting with these taken during rehearsals for the Florence show. Hope you like ’em as much as we do. I’m sure you will.)

Tonight’s Set List

With Orchestra
Amazing Journey
Pinball Wizard
We’re Not Gonna Take It
Who Are You
Eminence Front
Ball and Chain

Band Only
You Better You Bet
The Seeker
I Can See for Miles
Another Tricky Day
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