Brian Kehew's Backstage Blog

The Who Hits Back! Tour: Little Caesars Arena, Detroit, 4 October 2022

OK, let’s start with the basics, and then move on into one of the most-unusual shows we’ve ever covered. Ever.

This town is a rock music hub. SO many great bands, Mitch Ryder, MC5, Iggy Pop/Stooges, Bob Seeger, Alice Cooper (sorta), Glenn Frey, White Stripes. And of course, the Motown crowd. Nicknamed the Motor City as so many auto manufacturers had their major plants here, and design central for those companies, too. Over the 1980s-90s it all shut down and the economy and health of the place fell horribly. Abandoned buildings were everywhere. But in our last two visits, the place has done an amazing resurgence. Beautiful old buildings were restored, and there is a lot of great Industrial Age architecture here. Gentrification is happening, in the good way, and hip eateries and record shops are all the rage now. Some parts of the city are now modern-feeling and even vibrant. It’s the most-improved city I’ve seen in all of North America – and still going.

The Who have incredible history here. We mentioned Tom Wright in the last blog; I hope you’ve had a chance to read about him. The Grande Ballroom here was the center of the rock universe, and Tom was manager there for the heyday. All those great acts above and others did their best, with a crowd of hard-rocking, die-hard fans. It was so special to The Who that Tommy was premiered here in the States on the boards of that old stage. Pete has often told the story of finding what he thought was Buddy Holly’s Stratocaster in a shop and then accidentally smashing it onto someone’s hands during the show. Memorable, for sure.

As was tonight.

Following Toronto’s success, we were heading into this one will pretty positive vibes. No reason to suspect otherwise. Roger hailed the crowd “Good to be back! Good to be anywhere, really . . .”

It started off as-usual; the Tommy ‘Overture’. But something was off. Not the usual sound, not quite the energy we expected. Pete slowly started “detaching” – visibly listening and concerned about the sound, his sound.

Instead of launching into ‘1921’, he stopped the proceedings. “Excuse me for a while . . .” and turned toward his amps: He keeps drinks, towels, supplies etc on one of the Tube Traps pillars there. After messing about with something, we started up in ‘1921’. Still – problems were visible. Afterward he stopped again “My hearing things have gone a bit astray . . .” he said. And stopped to work on this again. Last show, he said his “ears” (state-of-the-art electronic hearing aids) had been set wrong and affected what he heard during part of the show.

He got new batteries from roadie Simon Law, but it didn’t help. Still waiting. Pete is fiddling with his mobile phone, and wanders forward eventually, coming up to his microphone. “Hello Mum? Yeah, it’s not going pretty badly . . .” (everyone laughs) “Yeah, Detroit, it’s a great crowd though . . .” (cheers).

And then on into ‘Amazing Journey’/’Sparks’. There is confusion, and it’s not just Pete, something is off – although he is our main concern. The feel just isn’t there. Timing errors happen, some playing and singing problems here and there. ‘Pinball Wizard’, the same thing – pretty good, but not strong.

We always say that even a bad Who show is better than most people’s good ones; even tonight, I’d agree. They have something built into the songs that makes them work, function even when rolling on one-less wheel – or fewer! Imagine a rough bar band playing old Who covers – well, that’s still fun and these are much better than that! Still, it’s a vibe. Of disappointment-meets-hope. We never know if/when it will turn a corner and just “be good again.”

It doesn’t! Not yet, at least. Right before ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ Pete apologizes profusely and says his phone uses a Bluetooth program to customize his hearing rig, and it’s “been hacked or something.” So he says he has to leave the stage for a few minutes and try to reset everything. Then he’s gone.!

Roger is wondering, walking about – and tries to get the band to leave as well. But conductor Keith Levenson encourages us to go forward – there are nearly 50+ musicians left to carry on, and we do. Pete wanders back on before ‘Listening To You’ closes the piece, and it helps. The crowd LOVE the moments, though, it’s exciting. It’s not boring, and it’s real. It’s The Who, or one version of it!

Even ‘Who Are You’ is off its rails. Not badly, but not well-played. And ‘Eminence Front’ is up next – but no one says anything, and Pete usually introduces it. My job is to start that backing track, so well-known from the record. Roger gestures wildly “GO GO GO!!!” so I start it up. And Pete holds his hands up and yells STOP” into his microphone. Total songus interruptus. Pete wanders over, takes a drink, thinks and prepares, then launches us back into it! Very casual and this shows something essential – they are VERY comfortable onstage, almost like being in a living room. No matter that thousands are here watching, they want it to be a certain way, and getting set for these things matters more than slickness. Pete’s obviously frustrated still, as he sings “Drinks flow . . . I fucking WISH they did!” during the verse. (As he’s now sober for many decades.)

‘Ball and Chain’ next, and Pete is working hard to get his fingers and guitar and rig to deliver what it usually does. Now and then, yes, but often it doesn’t – weird sounds, no sustain or wrong notes. Just not happening. It’s still cool, but must be maddening to be in the middle, hearing who-knows-what…

The orchestra leaves after a functional ‘Join Together’. The band-alone set starts, and Pete says “God, you’re being sweet” to the audience. “Usually it takes only two to three songs at the front to get our sound together, but I still feel like I’m at soundcheck”. ‘Relay’ is next, and it finally hits a groove. Without the orchestra there is more freedom on songs like this, and Pete nails several killing solos, great work. And the end goes far beyond the normal. Whew.

‘Another Tricky Day’ -– “What I’m having,” Pete announces. Then ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, and this time Roger misses the cue, and the vocals start late, playing OK over the band and backing track – it sounds ok, but is headed for a big crash as the backing track/drum solo etc is fixed on the keyboard backing-tape already. Zak motions to everyone that it’s off and finally they get Roger aligned with the proper timing – a nice trick of stagemanship. But then – verse two he’s lost, unsure where the vocal part should go. Pete steps in and sings, guiding the part where it should be and Rog returns on time. Bridge and breakdown OK, then keyboard break and drum solo/scream – cool. Pete changes guitars mid-stream, for some reason. Then verse three it’s Loren Gold who sings the first lines, guiding us back again. Teamwork works. Not the best version, but given tonight’s general mood, everyone is quite forgiving and even enjoyed it a lot!

Pete does a beautiful jam, a solo Spanish guitar noodle just before he starts ‘Behind Blue Eyes’. A nice version, as Roger is again singing so well!

The Quadrophenia set is better. Not flawless by any means, but pretty good stuff. On ‘5:15’ the band again is free to jam as the orchestra pauses, and again the moment rises and The Old Who is back. They jam/ending goes on for a really long time and some really cool vocal improv meets Pete’s wildest soloing. He’s really into exploring guitar noises and parts, not the blues-rock Clapton stuff most players try to do.

They do ‘The Rock’ and it’s pretty cool, but obviously Pete’s still looking for better – and changes guitars mid-song again. We’ve had a video for this song (most songs on the orchestral tour have no video presentation other than live cameras showing the stage). Roger’s concept video covers world history and events, kings and queens, wars, news of all kinds. Politicians, protests, rescues, progress, battles – a complex mix of things. For this current tour, Roger’s updated the last minute or so to bring us up to speed; masks, Boris Johnson, Russia, and ending with We Stand By Ukraine films . . . exciting, and powerful alongside this most-impressive composition.

‘Love Reign O’er Me’ – what is there to say but there is likely NO rock singer doing it as hard and as well as Roger is right now. He’s 78 and just amazing. It brings down the house.

Yes, more apologies and explanations from Pete for the less-than-ideal performance, but I see everywhere that people had a good time. They KNOW they saw a special show, it was live/real, it was present. Pete made a special speech at the end, very heartfelt about how much money things cost. Tickets, parking alone is huge, food, etc. And how much it means nowadays that people will pay so much to see a show like ours on the road. Quite an expense and you hope for the best.

This is how it works some days, and yet it was never boring, not for one moment this night. Certainly, one of two issues a night might even be noticed, but performers are very self-critical and focus on negatives the audiences rarely hear. Tonight – they heard more than normal, but they will remember the excitement of it and the struggle to get there, over and over, during this show.

We certainly won’t forget it.

Onward! . . .


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

Band Only
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