Brian Kehew's Backstage Blog

The Who Hits Back! Tour: TQL Stadium, Cincinnati, OH, May 15, 2022. Backstage Blog Part 1

I listened and I heard music in a word
And words when you played your guitar
The noise that I was hearing was a million people cheering
And a child flew past me riding in a star . . .

Our Backstage Blog has been on hiatus for a while, simply from the lack of time and energy to do it. This blog is a volunteer operation and I enjoy doing it, but we are all knackered (great English term for being tired) that there just isn’t the energy to do it at the moment. Because of the orchestra, some of our team are going in at 5:00 a.m. and leaving at 12:00 midnight or 1:00am. Others go in at 7:00/9:00 and work till midnight, that’s the typical day for this whole crew; 15 to 17 hour days for all of us. We do have every other day off, and sometimes two days to recover, and recovery is definitely needed! Besides being long days, these are very intense days, because of the current Covid situation. It’s a lot, but we’re grateful to be here at all.

Speaking of, yes, Covid’s a thing . . . After avoiding it for two plus years, I caught it on our second show, and was out for a week. Others have come and gone since then, and so the rest of our crew picks up the slack for a missing person or two, and works extra hard to make the show happen every day. We currently have three or four people out with it, and that’s a significant percentage of our team; we hire someone in or just work extra hard to cover for them. But our crew is a great bunch – and I know everyone says that about their own tour, but we are told again and again by countless outsiders that are team is one of the best groups of working buddies that there is. (You’d have to see it up close to understand.) And we all feel that it comes down from the top, the way Pete and Roger are in daily life resonates down through the way the crew behaves – being flexible and not too serious, but good at what you do. Because of Covid, I see this team pulling hard to cover for each other because “not my job, man” does not exist in our world.


That’s ‘a thing’, especially in the world of The Who. Almost no one needs to be told about the tragic incident that happened during their concert at Riverfront Coliseum in 1979. It literally shook the world of music. There was an understood way to handle it, but a million questions have been around since that moment, of how and why. Dealing with emotions, memories and tragedy, it’s incredibly difficult to fathom the situation and the feelings that result. The Who have not played in Cincinnati for 43 years . . . until tonight. There were even plans in recent years that had to be postponed. Sadly. And our team has been working closely with the people of Cincinnati, City officials, event planners and survivors. But most of all with representatives of the families from those who died that night, those who have had a much greater burden to bear.

All the while, there’s been an unease, because more than anything we feared that we might not be able to do the show: Covid has taken some of us out, or a sore throat, lost voice, or other such thing. Small things can happen to stop such an important gig – but none did. We are so pleased to just be here, and SO lucky nothing got in the way.

The TQL stadium is a new venue, and we are the first band to play here, that’s another special thing – but minimal in perspective. We should note that rain has been coming and going here, and the night before was a huge downpour as some of our team was setting up, and there was even a big rain literally just as we were loading the last trucks after. Yet the day of the show was perfect – ideal for a big concert outdoors. The show sold really well, a capacity crowd in a huge stadium – and there were people all the way up to the rafters in this big place. (The one exception was a standing-only terraced section for soccer games, not ideal for our type of show. As we always think backward to that day, festival seating-type things are not allowed, especially tonight.)

People here in “Cincy” have been so gracious and inviting, that there was nothing accusatory or negative about coming back; yet it was just a difficult situation for us that was being approached very, very carefully. This is mostly on the part of management and Tom Kenny, our lighting designer and overall creative director for The Who concerts. Tom was liaising and coordinating with the local people on all fronts to make sure we took care of their wants and needs, and also kept things on the positive for the band and crew. This has been happening in the background for years.

Many times things were made and changed in our plans, evolving even up until the minute of the show about how it was going to go down. Much of it was beyond our control, but we did our best to try to reach out and make people feel heard and understood. In our history slide presentation before the show, we showed the first concerts back in 1967 with Herman’s Hermits (which happened right across the road) and later shows with the James Gang (nearly local boys, from Cleveland) and Toots and the Maytalls in the ‘70s. But we had to mention specifically the 1979 concert without going into too much darkness, yet fully acknowledging the loss and emotional impact on the families and community that day. As we said on the big screen just before the show “Music is a powerful healer. We hope it lets you feel whatever emotions you find appropriate tonight . . .”

Yes, there were some people that just wanted to come see a concert and have a good time. Others may have wanted to grieve, others wanted acceptance and acknowledgment, and who knows how many other parts and feelings were out there.

Beside the historical context in the slideshow, our video team had put together a beautiful film to show the local memorials that have been done for the victims, with lovely soft and sensitive piano music provided by our keyboardist Loren Gold. As we set up for the performance, it was a touching moment to see the audience quieten down and watch that film.

The opening act today, Safe Passage, are made up of local musicians, some of whom were there that night and survived. They had a set of originals and covers that were so well received, but especially the best moment was when they played ‘Wish You We’re Here’ by Pink Floyd. The magic incident came when they stopped at “We’re just two lost souls living in a fishbowl, year after year” and the entire stadium sang the moment together. It was spontaneous, unanimous, and incredibly touching.

Photo © Steve Ziegelmeyer

Just 40 minutes before we went on stage, we received a special video message sent in from Eddie Vedder, who is currently out on tour with Pearl Jam. A few years ago, Pearl Jam had played here and dedicated their last song to those who died that night and their families; then they played ‘The Real Me’. We raced to download Ed’s video and check it out. It was incredibly moving, and our video team did an impossibly quick turnaround to get it up on the screens just before the show. You could tell the audience was surprised and pleased as Ed’s words were exactly right for the situation. We want to share it here as well, because it’s so beautifully done and between-band timing meant that some were out getting drinks or shirts; plus, it would be nice for those in town who did not attend the shows to see this message. It shows empathy and sympathy for the families and friends in Cincinnati, but also for the emotional effects that The Who band and management had to go through that night and since then, everyone facing difficulties of their own. It took several hours just to get this take – because it was so important to Ed, and that it was such a personal a situation to discuss. We were having difficulty between walking the line of having too much emotion, and putting on a professional, entertaining concert, all the while trying to be as sensitive as possible to those who were here. Delicate in every way.

To my knowledge Rog and Pete had been left to their own ways to handle whatever they wanted to say . . . or not. The show started with the usual Tommy medley and no discussion or chat onstage. Eventually Pete came to say some things about the difficulty of the night and how long they’ve been away. His basic concept was that he had a very difficult time figuring out what to say at all. (As you would, even as communicative as these two can be.) He said that it was an important time to remember – and also to forget. And if I may interpret that, there’s a lot of difficulty in remembering some painful things and situations beyond control that can never be changed. But to remember those people and anyone affected that night or since is correct.

Photo © Steve Ziegelmeyer

Photo © Steve Ziegelmeyer

Significant credit must be handed to Bill Curbishley. On the night in ‘79, when he was told of the tragedy unfolding, he went there in person and saw the horrible sights. Ambulances everywhere, rescue teams trying to revive or resuscitate people. Keep in mind that an additional 25 were taken to the hospital and dozens more were treated for injuries at the site. Bill made the judgment call to continue the concert, because he realised the crowd could riot causing even further damage. A tough choice was made, but it was the right choice. Over and over, the news and reports are calling him “a hero”. I’m sure he’d rather not be in the situation, but to give him such credit is totally fair and deserved.

If you seen any films or discussion of the incident (please watch the WCPO news documentary), it’s usually Bill who was brought out to relate our side of things, and how it’s been so difficult all these years and remains so. All this week he’s been working with people, walking the careful line between what’s the right thing to do and what we need to do to have a great concert as well. More to come in the Part 2 Blog.

The concert? Well, it was similar to the others we’ve been doing, with the much crazier and louder audience here. I saw everyone from ages 6 to 80-ish in the audience. Many who have never seen the band in person, but others who had long ago. And significant numbers came out just to be HERE, a most-special occasion. I know quite a few, even some friends of mine, who came from out of state to witness this.

Not to mention a full moon, a blood moon, and a full lunar eclipse at 10.00pm during the show (too busy, we didn’t see it). With the fine weather, someone said there are 11 stars up there helping make this night amazing. They did. Around most sporting arenas, they have digital screens ringing the stands. Same here, but throughout the show, the names of those 11 kids were displayed.

We had a small choir of teens from nearby Finneytown, the nearby home of three young kids lost that day, and where the PEM Memorial has been set up. They joined in on ‘Baba O’Riley’, as did a few string players from their area. They were all shy and a little scared, but it was cool to see/hear them, and GREAT for their families and hometown crowd to see them onstage in a massive stadium with The Who!

Finneytown High School graduate Zach Wuorinen on bass.

But just before that song . . . The Moment. A moment that was both planned and unplanned. As you probably know, we do ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ every night. The piano intro is original work and new to each show, with Loren Gold composing some really beautiful and moving music on his time off. For this night, Tom Kenny decided to make this the moment – the time when we stop and fully acknowledge the tragedy of 11 lost lives. As Loren played, we put a huge picture of each kid up for 20 seconds each. (I call them kids because most of the people were 15-20 years-old.) The music was emotional and sweet, but not maudlin or melancholy, just rich with feeling. A perfect choice.

As the first photo came up a great cheer came from parts of the audience, not all. And then suddenly we realised – these are the very people that knew this one personally. But a dozen voices here, 40 over there, 30 over there. And then another photo and another set of cheering, 50 here, 10 there, five over there: These were immediate family, relatives, friends from school, coworkers – literally those who knew this person well, not just a photo or a name from the past. I think we were expecting more of a community response rather than a personal one, but what meant so much was that they were cheering. And acknowledgment, in remembrance, and acceptance. Man, they were so young, and there was not a dry eye in the house…

Here is the best version I’ve seen of this – you can sense some of these reactions, although hearing the cheers come from different areas was quite different. It’s heavy again, just watching it now.

Video courtesy of Chas Hinkle

Have you ever been in therapy? (If not, you probably should!) One of the tenets of emotional therapy is to not avoid a problem but to revisit it. “Face your fears” is one term, but not quite appropriate when you’re dealing with other emotions besides fear. Therapy hopes to heal you of something unpleasant, ideally to deal with it and then be able to move on. It’s a tricky and difficult process most times, but it does work. And in this moment, the beautiful quiet piano solo in a huge stadium, just after a full lunar eclipse – we saw, we heard, we felt the healing that has been needed for 40 plus years. The acceptance of the band, the present and past situations all came together and it feels good all around, for everyone. Still very hard to put into words, but something GOOD happened. For the Cincinnati people, The Who, and those who have dealt with this over the years.

The names of the eleven teenagers who died in 1979 light up the TQL Stadium

Thanks to Tom Kenny and Bill Curbishley for making all this come together so well. To our video director Mathieu Coutu for always exceptional work. Loren Gold for the original music in our video and live slides. Eddie Vedder for his eloquent and heartfelt speech. Locally, we had countless people contributing: The families for supplying photos of their loved ones. I specifically want to thank Fred Wittenbaum, Brian Powers, Tanya O’Rourke, and the families of the 11 that contributed to what we were able to do for the show. More of this “thank you” stuff, and credit where credit is due coming in the next blog post.

Photo © Steve Ziegelmeyer

Onward . . .

Tonight’s Set list

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

Band Set
The Seeker
You Better You Bet
Won’t Get Fooled Again

Orchestra Set II
Behind Blue Eyes
The Real Me
I’m One
The Rock
Love, Reign O’er Me (including Loren Gold’s piano intro)
Baba O’Riley (with members of the Finneytown High School choir)