Brian Kehew's Backstage Blog

The Who Hits Back! Tour: Paris, 23 June 2023

Ah, Paris!

This is going to be a special one, no doubt. Paris is a city unto itself, nothing really like it in the world. I’m not a Francophile myself, but certainly everyone can objectively appreciate the stunning cultural icon that is this city and it’s life. It’s massive, but the history-meets-present is one of the best in the world (similar to London, but maybe better). Noteworthy buildings, cafés, museums, people, clothing, art, gardens – it’s all here in quantity. But let’s back up a day or two . . .

Berlin – we’re leaving, and the band makes this trip on a private plane. That’s a more recent thing, and sorta common among more-successful groups. You do save hours of travel without all the checking-in, baggage, security, lounges, gates, etc nonsense; you just drive up to the plane, load-in and fly. Same for landing, simple immigration details handled quickly. It’s premier travel but not actually so expensive vs first-class tickets on a standard airline. Not cheap – it’s upscale, but with big benefits. And then – there’s the crew. We travel like normal humans, vans and buses, airlines and gates. Berlin has a new-ish airport many, many years in the making. Yet, it’s terrible. We had nothing but troubles, so much so that we were within one minute of missing the flight itself, despite being at the airport several hours early. Long bag lines, long security lines, etc. Almost didn’t make it. BUT our team is tough, literally each person on this crew could be left alone in any city in the world and make it out and home by themselves. We are pretty damn smart and independent, I am surrounded by them; all seasoned travellers who have seen it all. And yet, someone said after all this: “Well, at least no matter what we run into in the future, we can say ‘At least – it’s not as bad as Berlin.” That’s the kind of day we were into. Rough. Arrived later in Paris worn and burnt-out.

Some of us get a day-off; très, très, très-welcome. The Louvre, Seine, l’Arc de Triomphe, Cathédrale Notre-Dame (outside), les Champs-Élysées shopping, all of that. English pubs (yes, some of our team still do that in Paris!)

Other have to go in and work. This tour has been like that: Unlike our many shows in the USA, none of this has all happened “on the same day” for some reason or other. Our days off mean some people get to walk and sightsee, others have to go in and set up or rehearse. Today, a few of our team don’t get their day in Paris . They have to unload all the trucks, set up lighting and focus, adjust, etc in advance. The rest of us run around and do what Paris does. Half my day off is spent doing the blog each time. The rest of the day was spent at Cité de la Musique, probably the best music museum in the world, but there are so many options here.

Show day, gonna be a big one for us, literally! The arena itself is HUGE, and I’m not kidding. It’s literally four times the size of Madison Square Garden, or the Forum in Los Angeles. You could build Saturn V rockets in here. It functions as a rugby pitch, so there is green Astroturf, covered today by rubber mats that make a floor under the stage and audience. We can’t even use all the arena, it’s way too big, so our stage is set about 60 per cent of the way across the floor, and so more than half will be our audience today, over 10,000 people. Behind the stage, we have room to park ALL our trucks, with much room to spare – that’s a big place.

Paris is the site of so many Who gigs, since the beginning. The French have embraced the band since the beginning; their sense of au courant fashion in the Mod days definitely appealed, besides the great music. No matter what time period, this band always had “a look” that resonates with some people. And the French are very style-conscious, about everything. We know there will even be some here from England, as it’s so close (a quick ride on the famous hi-speed Eurostar Channel tunnel train or a plane over) and even from America, as it’s a great city to visit for a Who show.

In the crowd outside, I see many fans of previous Who shows and tours, not only in Paris but from Hyde Park and previous shows in the UK. Pretty cool. In particular, just after our famous Hyde Park show (huge, and filmed/released, so you’ve likely seen it) and Glastonbury, we did a show in Paris just two days later or so, at Le Zénith in the wonderful Parc de la Villette area. That show was hot as hell, unbearable, really. Everyone standing was soaked in sweat, and the band were ten times worse. But it was one of the greatest Who shows ever!!! Incroyable, as they say here. Probably one of those shows that won’t be known in history, but SO good it ought to be. I still have Roger’s microphone from that show, I thought it was memorable enough to save it forever. I know some people here tonight remember that event . . .

We start with a local opening band I don’t know, French guys, with a very ’60s vibe in look and sound. It’s perfect, in a way, because their music I call “rave up” – energetic, powerful, punchy 60s rock/pop is très cool – like The Yardbirds or Small Faces. The audience loves them, and they do seem sort of inexperienced in this big space. I’m told later that the band wrote a nice letter to Pete Townshend, and when we had no opening/support band for this show – they were remembered and brought in to play! Pretty cool. It either shows how generous this organisation is (true!) or how disorganised it can be at times (true!) – I will find their name and post it here asap! (Editor: Brian, they’re called The Arrogants)

Before our band comes out, this audience starts a spontaneous clapping, in rhythm. Very cool – we haven’t seen that in ages! I hear Deep Purple’s classic ‘Highway Star’ playing on the PA before the start, and then hear a violin shredding note-for-note playing right along with the solo!?! Well, it’s our own Katie Jacoby, a real rocker at-heart, who grew up with Metallica, Zappa, Django/Grapelli, and all kinds of great music – not just classical.

Les Who come out as usual, but both Rog and Pete are wearing light/bright clothes, and it beams out in the lights, very stylish and very easy to see. Tommy starts anew, and it sounds great in such a big space. Our orchestra is tighter, more in-tune than the others we’ve had recently, and I can feel things starting to gel for a “good night”. Except in ‘1921’, as it has a few times, gets off, pretty noticeably so. Our newest member, Mike McKnight, had been brought in to run the click-track systems that the orchestra (and band now) rely upon to get through the show. Mike struggles to save the day (he totally saved our Hollywood Bowl show last year!) but there isn’t time, and it eventually comes to some conclusion a little off-kilter. No matter, it ends and onward – Tommy continues to good reception: the audience knows this music well.

Video courtesy of NoSeriousMan from waaaaay in the back somewhere 

I see the all-female cello section rocking, swinging their heads as they play. Each player usually shares a music stand with another player seated next to them; two violins, two cellos, etc. This save a lot of space for the music stands (called “a desk” when two players share the music stand and sheet music.) The overall thing may be very busy-sounding, but usually each player is given simple parts they can sight-read and play without having to learn the part fully; read and play. So, while they may see a bunch of notes, those notes might be da-da-da-dum over and over on one note: they see the figure, they think what it sounds like “da da da dum” and play it easily. The same way you and I see these words on a page and know what they sound like – these players do for music. It’s their language, it’s practice, it’s experience. And so, if you’re a rocker and playing rocking music – they can listen to Les Who and their parts and even head-bang a little as they play along to the fairly simple parts. (But not in ‘Baba O’Riley’ – that piece is pretty much a workout for anyone in the orchestra onstage! Good thing it’s at the very end!) This orchestra plays some parts very tightly – like what’s called a “button” at the end – a big finishing note. It’s there where we notice the night’s going better than usual for this leg. Signs of a good night are indeed happening, besides the loud audience.

Tommy finished with ‘Listening To You’ (or ‘Listening to Vous’, ‘See Moi Feel Moi’ – we know all the jokes) Pete asks Roger if he wants to introduce the band – something usually done at the end? Rog is as confused as the rest of us, when Pete says “We are the Who; or what’s left of us, with many additions!” He mentions the orchestra is local musicians, people love that each night.

Pete explains he spends about a third of his year in France – and he really loves it, the people, the language (though he professes to be terrible’) and the culture in general. I can see it – he’s artsy, fashionable – things that matter here.

Video courtesy of Gary and Melissa Hurley centre front row (where else?) 

We’re waiting to see how the night unfolds, as we’ve had decent shows each night, but it’s still early in the tour, when it’s hard to feel right. Each night, there are ALWAYS high points – Roger’s stunning vocals hit everyone, Pete does some unusual and amazing guitar bits – but there are still growing pains in feel and sound somehow. When it catches fire – we can usually tell during something where there is a jam, like ‘5:15’. It’s easy to feel – does it suddenly become amazing, better than the record, new and surprisingly great? Not often, but each night has potential. Once in a while, the band (with audience involvement) pulls out a strong, accurate show, very high-quality. And even fewer nights, it catches fire – and everyone knows it. Normal non-musician people have days like this: going to the bank, the parking, the store, the lines, Starbucks, work/school – days when everything just goes great! And other days, it’s all a struggle – no matter what effort you put in, it just fights you and you do your best to come out unscathed. The musicians have this too, and are very perceptive of it. We can feel Pete trying to get ‘5:15’ to “take off” and it doesn’t. Then he does something unusual, he turns back to Zak, tried again to windmill and push and push the power of it up,  and it works. The band and audience feel it and something happens were it gets electric – even for a few moments, it’s NEW, it’s different – and no one knew what was going to happen. It caught fire.

(Toward the end, there was some kind of issue. Hard to see, but we heard some kind of commotion between security and the fans in front. Roger was commenting on it, but couldn’t understand – seems like overzealous fans or overzealous security or both. All I know is – it went on long after the show was over, they were still arguing and yelling while we were emptying the stage.)

Video courtesy of the Gazzas

Quadrophenia goes great – the bombastic orchestra and band sound here is echoing and powerful. Some of the usual bows and thanks – then the orchestra and band are gone…

‘Tea & Theatre’ starts as an encore (another great French word!) I mentioned something about “just Rog and Pete” playing together one blog ago, with no idea (and I’m pretty certain they don’t read this at all.) But they have decided not to end the show with ‘Baba O’Riley’, but to let the band bow, and get intimate – an acoustic song with just the two of them! It’s nice, really nice, to see them together. So charming and special – this is “a moment” and brings such a large place into a more personal, good-feeling thing. The ‘Tea & Theatre’ song is about characters from one of Pete’s stories – but it applies so well to just the two musicians onstage here.

So, our next leg is in the UK. We have something different happening there that’s not happened before – and it promises to deliver some greatness to these coming 10 or so shows. So wait and see – or jump on a plane and come see it! Most of our band and crew have about 10 days off – to see Europe, stay in Paris, go home, go to the UK and get ready. Let’s See Action in about two weeks, and see what happens then.

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
The Seeker
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