Brian Kehew's Backstage Blog

The Who Hits Back! Tour: The Royal Sandringham Estate, Monday 28 August 2023

Well, this is an unusual one – in so many ways . . .

We “finished” our Summer 2023 tours a while ago – maybe a month? And all of us went home or to other tours or whatever. Now we’re back, just for a single show. It’s expected to be somewhat the same as we have our band, and our own orchestra from the last tour leg and most of the crew is here. We know where things should go, but it’s not our usual sound rig or the lighting rig – all those bits went back to the hire/rental companies when the last tour leg ended in July.

As it happens for this, there will be no rehearsal, which could be tricky anyway: We’d have to rent some kind of hall or space, load everything in, set up, play a few numbers and hope for the best. Expensive, and more days of work, and maybe not necessary? Regardless, there’s nowhere around here that rehearsals could be done because . . .

We are at Sandringham: two-and-a-half hours North of London, in the beautiful English countryside. It’s been the Royal Estate for over 150 years; yes, Kings and Queens of England during much of their heyday as THE international power. It’s not big, it’s not huge – even the word ‘massive’ doesn’t cover the size of this property. How does 20,000 acres of land sound? I’m glad I’m not their lawnmower guy.

The home itself is gorgeous, beautiful inside and out. Yes, we did get a brief tour of the inside and it’s not only luxurious and fabulously expensive, it’s warm and comfortable. The Royal Family have always spent Christmas holidays here, but they say that King Charles now comes in via helicopter at least once a month, to get away from it all. Their staff are fine people, well-versed in all the history and such, and they offer a proper gin and tonic as part of the tour. Nice!

And so, that’s the setting, but the event itself is new. It’s the idea to have an annual festival here, raise some money for charity. The Who are always good about such things, and so this weekend is Event #1 for them. I hear Van Morrison was here to kick it off, then two days with Robbie Williams. We are the fourth and final day. Like Woodstock 1969, there is basically only a two-lane road in or out, so the traffic is nuts, almost unbearable. But not much they can do about it, I suppose. (Unless you have a helicopter, like Pete Townshend.)

Our team arrives from around the world (some even came as far as from England!) the day before and drive in; most of us are on tour buses with bunk beds. We will be sleeping overnight in their field/car park to be ready for the morning. Others drove their private cars here. And one helicopter.

We come in the night before, get some dinner at the catering tent. Before the trip, some of my friends said “You’re going to be at the Royal Estate!? The food there will be amazing.” Ha ha ha, no; they don’t know our tours. We eat in a plastic tent, with limited options and it really is particularly crap this time.

After dinner – what to do? Nada – we have no internet or mobile phone reception here in the woods. So we do what comes naturally; sit on the crew bus, eat a little, drink a lot, talk and laugh. It’s probably one of the highlights of touring, when you have people like our family. It’s pretty fun actually, and then off to bed for an early morning. Our lighting meister Fuji Convertino went in and did his stuff all night (checking out and programming the supplied lights). He worked from midnight to dawn and then went to bed.

7.00am! Up for 8.00am load-in. Quick breakfast at the stingy caterers, then off to unload the trucks. We don’t have to unload any sound or lighting, but it’s not all our normal people (*some missing) so it takes some extra time to unpack and set up our stages and such. All the usual things as before, just slower and tricky: Again, no test-run rehearsal or soundcheck today. We have to be done by 1.00pm, and we are, whatever that brings. Then, we have an easy eight hours until our show!

Short visit to the big estate house, lots of ‘nothing else’ to do. But we have a compound; each band gets a circle of portable offices/dressing rooms to house their team, and a nice lawn in the middle. With security guards around, it’s a nice safe environment where only WE belong there, which is nice. Pretty much everyone arrives, the band, management, crew, family/friends – it’s a nice “hello again!” time for all of us. Even Pete and Roger are hanging around and chatting, as there are no outsiders or autograph hounds around to spot them. Much like it is at our rehearsals, a good time for everyone to be on equal footing, casual co-workers about to do a big job together.

Video courtesy of Jeff Scrivener 

Video courtesy of Kristian Koci 

The Lightning Seeds and Richard Ashcroft are the two opening bands. Both great choices – they rock, they have catchy songs, loud guitars, good stuff – and the audience really enjoys it. I particularly loved Richard Ashcroft’s T-shirt; it had a photo of HIMSELF wearing a T-shirt: on that t-shirt was a photo of himself wearing a t-shirt of himself –and so on and on and on. Many photos of Richard in his own shirt on his own shirt, if you get the point!

Time for us – a band that hasn’t played in a month, about to use some gear and a sound system etc that they’ve never tested! “Hello!” to our old orchestra buddies from the summer, and we’re ready to play. But it’s good. The usual starts, Tommy ‘Overture’, Roger with tambourines, all that stuff.

Not a major disaster, but there is one issue. A few songs in, Pete stops and is fiddling with his phone between songs. He talks into the microphone “I’m not fielding calls! I’m trying to adjust my hearing aids, which are controlled by my IPhone app; it’s gone off, and I can only hear about half of what I should . . .” Roger jumps in “He’s really dialing in Radio 4 – and it’s killing him!” Pete does admit, “Yeah, I could be listening to an audible book during all this, like War And Peace, Atlas Shrugged, the New Testament!?” All fine but lofty choices for a rock show.

Video courtesy of Craig H

Pete keeps struggling with it, though none of us can hear what he’s not hearing . . . and then he leaves the stage. (We’ve seen this once before when he went all the way back to his dressing room.) Roger jokes about it, not really worried; “He’s left! He’s left the band again! Not another fight!!” and then chuckles about it. They are in such a good mood overall. (And when you’ve done this many shows, almost nothing truly phases you. We’ve had shows that went only one minute before canceling, serious battles, storming offstage, storms fully flooding the stage. So this is not serious stuff tonight.) Quickly, Pete is back, and we’re off again.

But we have ONE newish thing that’s a big deal to us: A large video screen across the back of the stage. On all of the previous tour, they had a large curtain; somewhat to “feel like a concert hall” but it also saves a good amount of money so we can afford the big orchestra each night. For tonight, the screen is up and we have all the old video content from 2013 onward. Those videos you may have seen of pinballs, lava lamps, old Who photos, animated songs, etc. They’re back and ready to fly tonight, adding something yet-unseen to this whole tour. It’s a brilliant move, the whole show feels and seems more exciting (even tho technically, it’s the same deal as we do every night.) I hadn’t realised what a difference this would make in energy, the whole stage seemed cooler and more modern, and sometimes it was live video showing the onstage players in BIG quality; everyone gets to see the main players doing their best moment at just the right time. All this video is controlled by our main man, Mathieu Coutu, who has just added tons of extra work to his busy plate for this single show (we used to have our old video master, Gianni, just to run this video content on previous shows, but he sent us all these clips to use just for tonight.) Just in the photos alone, with no moving parts, everything looks so much cooler. If we ever do more shows then maybe this will continue. It can only help the reputation and legacy of (they already and still are) one of the world’s best bands.

Video courtesy of pdk905

Pete talks about the set in the middle, sans orchestra. He mentions that it’s really music for “old people” as it’s so many of the great ’60s singles they were first-known for. ‘Anyway Anyhow, Anywhere’, ‘I Can’t Explain’, ‘My Generation’, ‘The Kids Are Alright’, ‘Substitute’; I do think (compared to most bands) they really do enjoy playing these songs from their early era. Pete admitted, some younger people have grown up and learned to love that period as much as the original fans do. But these songs “. . . don’t play themselves. They are really fucking hard to play!” True, as the chords are not as simple as they sound, and ‘My Generation’ has so many possible versions, each with a key change in a different spot, that we rarely get to hear it work well! Pete laughs at the end of the band set “You know we’re doing it ‘like we used to’ because Roger will get lost!”

Video courtesy of Kristian Koci

“Well . . . this is nice,” he says about the Estate situation around us. As part of a new initiative, Pete and Roger were asked to plant a tree apiece. Eventually, they hope to add two million new trees to replace the many lost every year to humans, fire, or disease. Good idea, and can’t hurt! Evidently, Roger loved the idea especially. Pete mentioned this onstage. Roger planted an oak tree and Pete did a lime. “We planted these two trees to stop climate change, so you can stop worrying about it! ‘Cause we fixed it. You’re welcome!!”

“Get your back into it, Rog!” Photo by Joe Garlipp

Pete and his lime tree. Photo by Doug Clarke

‘The Rock’ – we always have this film, cut together by Roger Daltrey, of many world events, good and band. It’s kind of a non-commentary on the human experience of the 20th Century. So you see Mods and Rockers, disco, news, politics, wars, rescues, hurricanes, charity efforts. But here, just a short walk to the home of the former Queen, we suddenly see her (and her family and Diana) and the announcement of her death, her funeral scenes, crowning the new King. Serious stuff. On a normal day, this runs on our side screens while Pete and the band and orchestra play through ‘The Rock’. But today, this has greater impact than ever before, only a few minutes away from a home she knew since birth.

Video courtesy of the Gazzas 

Just as that piece fades into the night, Loren Gold does another great solo piano intro to ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ which nobody comes to a Who show expecting, but it’s a great change-up, and really reduces the BIG show down to something intimate and quiet for a moment. And also it’s something “new” – which wakes everyone up; not the same old parts from before. Then, back into it, that big number begins post-piano. Roger absolutely kills tonight – even the crew are stunned at how good he’s done it. Big applause all around. To think we didn’t even have it in the set for many years, and now it’s become a staple, and partly because of his most-impressive vocal work. You try singing it full-voice and on-pitch and full of emotion; it’s incredibly hard, and he does it about as well as he’s ever done, and will be 80 years-old soon. Wow.

Then guess what? ‘Baba O’Riley’ for the big finish. Big and welcome, everyone made it. Whew.

Video courtesy of Kristian Koci 

All in all, it was pretty damn good. We all expected some small disaster due to the lack of normal preparation and missing some of our key crew people. But not really, other than Pete’s ears situation, things went OK. I’m always impressed by Roger’s work in the last few years. He may think “it’s normal” or whatever but it’s not. He’s a stunning, powerful singer to this day, and leaving ALL the others from their generation behind. Who knows, it shows no sign that he’s even slowing down. He’s actually getting better in the last few years. Pete even played some totally new and unexpected guitar tonight – always something fresh and exciting still comes from his fingers each night.

So at the end, of course we all have these thoughts: “Is this the end of it all, the last Who show?” No one’s sure, although there does seem to be nothing planned for the rest of this year. We usually hear about things six to eight months in advance, at least, such planning takes much time. So for 2023, I suspect we’re done. Would there be more shows, with an orchestra or not? An album or film? The Who By Numbers On Ice?

No news beyond that, just the Who’s Next | Life House box set coming. And then . . . who knows?



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