Brian Kehew's Backstage Blog

The Who Hits Back! Tour: St. Helens, Friday 21 July 2023

And yet another bus ride: A journey through the countryside from wherever we were (Ed: Durham, Brian) to St. Helens. We hear the charming Scouse-like accents all around us, and it definitely feels like The North: St. Helens is Liverpool-adjacent, so we’re right near that great city, but not in it. This town is a longtime center for glassware, always has and always will be: I see lots and lots of huge buildings with smokestacks still churning out glass products of all kinds. Today, we’re just down the road in a new-ish stadium. The home of the St. Helens Rugby Football Club (the 2022 Champions!), in their oddly-named Totally Wicked Stadium? It turns out, Totally Wicked is simply a branding thing, named after a company that sells smoking and vaping products.

The backstage and dressing rooms etc are pretty nice, the modern facilities help make the day a little better. It’s a step-up from where we’ve been, with less dirt and mud, but there IS some since it’s still raining on us everyday! We’re mostly loaded in when it starts coming down, and we suddenly realise our “tent stage” isn’t fully waterproof: It’s coming down a lot in places, others just a drizzle – but that’s no good for orchestral instruments and sheet music pages, for example! Something needs to happen. Luckily, the staging team (not our traveling crew but the local staff on-site) has two young guys without a fear of heights. They strap on harnesses and lift themselves to the top of the massive stage, and climb above to tape and glue all the spots we think are leaking. Hard to say if it’s working until we can test it – probably during the show. One of the guys says this is no big deal, it’s a “smaller stage” (of about 55 feet above ground) he calls it! He says the “big ones” are Pink and Harry Stiles, for example.

Once set up, the Who crew “pushes back” which involves moving or removing most of what we’d just set up!? Yeah, the opening bands often need room, so we try to leave microphone and light cables attached and just slide/roll things backward a few feet. Our support acts today are Standin’ Man – featuring a member or two of Slydigs, the group that opened our whole UK tour a few years ago. I must say I’m impressed by their songs and show – it was pretty good and well-received by this audience of (mostly older) rockers. Then Ali Campbell’s UB40 doing what they do so well. This is such a different thing, full reggae before The Who, but the audiences know most of the tunes and sing and dance along. A nice easy-going warmup.

Our lighting designer Tom Kenny spots a leak!

Meanwhile backstage, our crew has had hours to sit and wait – not uncommon but these shows have not involved any (a) orchestra rehearsals or (b) band soundchecks. So it’s a lot less-busy and we have to occupy time any way possible. Two of our guys find empty bathtubs in the backstage locker rooms and get some needed rest. I see a man bringing in many wooden signs, brightly-painted and psychedelic-looking artifacts: They’re a bit worn, but clearly show some sort of Tommy face image. Turns out, they are remnants from some sort of carnival ride that he’d bought. He promised to donate one to the Teenage Cancer Trust if Rog and Pete would sign them; which they did today. A nice-looking souvenir, so keep an eye on the TCT auctions, if they are online.

A nice mixed-age crowd has shown up, most of them very familiar with rain, so they’re set to go. The forecast is indeed downpour – and during our show. It starts off pretty well. “Are you ready for some ‘crock and roll’ ” Pete yells out! “We use this section, selections from Tommy, to show off our talented orchestra.” It’s a good version tonight, but a little sloppy here and there. I notice the same issue as other shows; most people in the front are seated, and then behind them are thousands of people standing and having a great night! Regardless, there are thousands here, maybe 8,000 and it’s nearly double what we’ve seen at some of these smaller shows. Pete jokes about it – playing the stadiums and festivals, they realise just how many people do come out, but they also see how many more it would take to actually fill a huge place like this. The whole floor and all the sides are full and it looks like a big mass of wet people tonight.

‘The Acid Queen’ is often an interesting one, as Pete does his modern vocal version, where he doesn’t sing as much as growl, but it gives it a tough, harder edge. Roger’s the opposite – doing all the songs a lot like the record, which is truly amazing, as his voice pretty much sounds just like Roger always did. A slight warmer sound, less boyish, but the notes and muscular tone are always amazing to us. People notice – as we’re used to “legacy” bands with singers that can’t cut it anymore – and Roger is the rare exception! Toward the end of Tommy, something happens. Onstage, we’re not quite sure what, but it soon becomes apparent that The Who PA has gone off! No sound for the audience, but they’re still rocking onstage.

There’s a scramble from our sound guys, looking for what caused it. All the amp racks have dozens of power amps that drive the big speakers: they all say “Please Wait” on the front screens; how polite, during a panic moment! Nowadays, everything is digitally/computer-controlled, so they can adjust and set the equipment from an overall laptop system out in the main house. I see guys throwing tarps over the power systems in the back of the stage, but it’s not really rainy right now, so that’s not likely the issue at all. But something shut off or restarted the whole PA system. Oops.

Video courtesy of the Gazzas

At some point in ‘Listening To You’, the PA comes back on with a burst, and the whole place cheers like crazy!! But Roger and almost all the band are “on ears” – listening over earbuds, so they don’t hear what’s really happening in the room; they have their own mix. Only Pete is natural, having “wedge” speakers on the floor near him, and he hears the guitar amps normally. He stops afterward and asks the audience “What was it on the screens that made you cheer so loudly?! Was it a picture of David Beckham??” So – Pete and Rog can’t really see the screens, which sometimes show a musician or film or image that they don’t see. And Pete, despite not being “on ears” didn’t hear the change when the PA went out. So everyone onstage was confused by the loud cheer. In the audience it went from big Who to no Who to Big Who again; worth a nice cheer . . . and Simon Law (guitar tech) went out to explain to Pete.

One of our crew spots Mr. Johnny Vegas on the side of the stage; he’s a local Northern comedian who has done quite well over the years. Despite the name, he’s from here, and happy to be decked out in Who-type clothing like much of the crowd tonight.

Pete and Rog are concerned about the rain, as it’s already drizzled a bit on everyone. “Roger’s like a shaman, with the rain,” Pete explains between songs, having had past experiences where Roger appears to have some control of it?! “Turn it off, turn it off” Roger starts to chant into the microphone. “Well, it hasn’t actually started yet,” Pete notes.

Video courtesy of Transeuropa

For ‘Who Are You’, there are three women who are coming onstage: They’ve been allowed to sign the lyrics (@concertsigners) for that famous song, which is nice. Rog and Pete welcome them warmly, having met them before the show and organised things to happen for this. It’s a little strange, though, as the one woman faces away from the audience and signs right to the other two, like a conductor? Usually, if we have one, there’s just one. But they all work together here and it’s an interesting moment, also good to be aware and present of those with significant hearing loss, who are not often thought-about during big shows. Of course, we always support causes for the deaf; we have several of them in our band!

As I mentioned, so many people were sitting down, but some people start standing in those seated sections, trying to have a good time. Pete sees the conflict and explains “If anyone wants to stand up in front, remember that there are old-age pensioners sitting down, who have paid a lot of money for their seats!!” Roger jokes “I’ve got MY seat” and sits down right on the stage, laughing. Pete continues “I think the solution is for everyone to get up . . . C’mon, if I can do it, so can you!” As if to demonstrate, he starts right into ‘I Can’t Explain’ with full force. And basically everyone does get up – and the mood is so much improved. This is our loudest crowd to-date on this Summer tour. Maybe the rain is helping, as everyone’s having fun, nobody’s “too cool” when being rained upon. Next up is ‘My Generation’, and the crowd is so wild that Roger just lets them all sing the first verse, and he stands there and just laughs as they do. It’s a LOUD crowd, lots of fun in that moment! Then he joins in for verse 2 and the rest.

Video courtesy of the Gazzas

‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ is, as always, another stormer; it’s perfect music for a big show and noisy crowd. Pete even starts adding sustained feedback guitar over Zak’s drum break, that anticipation of the big crash and scream – it adds something totally new, and makes the big crash-back-in all the more powerful. After ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ (which is much better tonight than it has been recently) we’re into the home stretch, the final third of the show.

Video courtesy of Tony Cooper right there in the middle of the 8,000

The darkness has finally come, with the Northern sun finally set and our light show really starting to have an impact. From the stage, we’ve seen a lot of raindrops in the spotlights, but now the mist and moist air really make the stage lights more beamy and cool-looking. It really affects how the audience sense the mood as the lights change with the music. ‘Love Reign/Rain O’er Me’ – the parallel to being rained upon never ceases to happen in shows like this, making the song that much more impactful.

Video courtesy of the Gazzas 

These English crowds really resonate with the whole Quadrophenia album and styles. It’s local history in many ways, so maybe they feel it stronger here. Plus the later Mod movement (The Jam etc) really had its foothold in the UK more so than anywhere, and it continues. So, as Pete says, the orchestral parts really work best in Quadrophenia, and it’s a big, big set until we can close strongly with ‘Baba O’Riley’.

Seriously, a bigger, louder crowd was most-welcome to lift the mood tonight. I saw dancing going on all night around the perimeters, these people know how to have fun! I think everyone basically enjoyed the show, and the PA moment only made it more unique; easily forgotten a few minutes later and an absolutely enjoyable night for us.

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