The argument for the Foo Fighters
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
I have a sneaking suspicion that, when the end-of-the-decade rock retrospectives come out, you'll see names like the Strokes, the White Stripes, Ryan Adams, Queens of the Stone Age, the Black Keys, the Shins, the Hold Steady and Kings of Leon, among others, making the round up.
Add to that, of course, names like Radiohead, Wilco, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tool, Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam and others who carried themselves over from the 90s and kept their momentum up into the new decade.
If the Foo Fighters come up in either discussion, I'll be shocked.
It's hard to pin down the reason for that, though. Through the late-90s and this entire decade, Dave Grohl and company have been a constant presence on mainstream rock radio (one of the only listenable bands consistently featured therein). They make videos as if MTV still aired and cared about videos. Their albums enter at the top of the charts and stay there for plenty of time. They seem to be the musical guests on Saturday Night Live at least once a year. They win Grammys. They sell out shows. Critics don't seem to hate them. Their leader has some of the greatest indie credibility available, for those who need that sort of thing.
So, why then, are the Foo Fighters looked over so quickly?
Perhaps its a combination of all the reasons above. The Grammys are, of course, a joke. No one looking for new music listens to the radio. Do folks outside of the industry even read the Billboard charts? And do they still watch Saturday Night Live?
There is a significant and nearly horrifying dearth of good rock shows here in the Valley of the Sun. It seems like there are several major acts who bypass the greater Phoenix area on their tour schedules in favor of Las Vegas or San Diego. For example, some of the bigger tours of 2007 — including Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, the Stooges and Queens of the Stone Age, among others — bypassed the state of Arizona entirely. So news of a band like Foo Fighters playing the ridiculously named Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, with ticket prices cheaper than a new DVD, was met with enthusiasm by this writer.
And, going along with the earlier query, I too had never really thought too long about the Foo Fighters. That's especially ridiculous, because I own CDs of theirs and have always held Dave Grohl in pretty high esteem. He's an incredible drummer (Nirvana, QotSA, Tom Petty, David Bowie, etc.), he's multitalented, he's funny, he seems to have a good grip on things, he generally has a lot going for him. But still, I'd never really taken the time to seek out a concert ticket to a Foo Fighers show. It took the lack of appealing rock concerts to spark it.
And, after an adequate opening performance by Against Me and a very good one by Serj Tankian, I was sucked into a time warp. A time when being an arena band wasn’t the artistic kiss of death. A time when good tunes were necessary, and fun came first.
I’m being melodramatic now. Of course there are still quality arena bands around now. But on pure fun, I don’t think there’s anyone that can touch the Foo Fighters right now. For roughly two and a half hours, Dave Grohl was sprinting from the stage through the ramp built to cut the general admission floor in half and back. Kicking beers, screaming choruses, headbanging, more sprinting, and more jokes than I’ve heard since I caught the Comedians of Comedy doing their thing.
As All Music Guide editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine suggests, Dave Grohl may be playing Paul McCartney to Kurt Cobain's John Lennon, and that might be the best way to summarize why the Foo Fighters could ultimately be ignored by the rock history books. What better way to size this up than to look at the reception of Wings in the 70s? Arena tours, big hits, a few great albums and some bad ones, and in the end, ignored for the likes of Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Bruce Springsteen and others.
Despite whatever missteps may exist, McCartney still made plenty of significant contributions that decade. There was the seminal Band on the Run album, the homespun Ram, and his debut McCartney, on which he played everything himself — and interestingly enough, so did Grohl on the Foo Fighters' self-titled debut.
The first Foo Fighters record has a definite homemade charm, sometimes sounding like an extra from Nirvana’s Incesticide, sometimes sounding like a great, poppy garage band. But it’s quality, as is most of the Foo Fighter’s catalogue. It's that quality that Grohl shares with much of McCartney's solo output. Good, to be sure, but probably not revolutionary.
The difference between McCartney and Grohl — apart from the unaproachable influence and cavalry of “greatest songs ever written” by the once-and-forever Beatle — is Grohl’s sense of humor. He’s really just a big kid. He goofs around constantly, be it in a bar, backstage or on camera for VH1. He cracks jokes onstage. He pokes fun at his bandmates. He forces his road percussionist to perform a triangle solo. And, even when he’s not necessarily kidding, he’s still funny. On this evening, he spent several song breaks to rag on Weezer for limiting their set time.
“Did you guys catch us on the Weezer tour?” Grohl asked. “Yeah? Well that shit was a ripoff. We only got to play for *this* long, but tonight we’re gonna play for THIS long. ... You didn’t get a triangle solo on the Weezer tour, did you? You got fucking gypped on the Weezer tour!”
The fact that Grohl is still bitter about not being able to stretch out the band’s set to his liking on that 2005/06 co-headlining tour with Weezer isn’t surprising. When he’s not manning the Foo Fighters, he’s playing with anyone else who will have him. He backed David Bowie at the singer’s 50th birthday bash in Madison Square Garden on drums. He’s turned up behind the kit for Tom Petty, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails and Tenacious D in guest spots. He dedicated most of 2002 to smack the skins for Queens of the Stone Age. He openly campaigned for the drum seat for a reformed Led Zeppelin for a decade (eventually losing out to John Bonham’s son, Jason). He started a hardcore metal band out of boredom a few years ago. He paid tribute to Joe Strummer at the Grammy’s on “London Calling” with Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen and Little Steven Van Zandt. He never seems to have more than a free minute because, even when the Foo Fighters are on a break, he’s filling up his time, singing, strumming and pounding away for anyone else who will have him.
Because, in the end, all this big kid wants to do is play.
That desire to play as long as possible often makes for a great show often, and with the Foo Fighters, the rule held true.
The setlist ran through all six of the band’s albums. Opening with the one-two punch of “Let it Die” and “The Pretender” from last year’s Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace and ending with “Best of You” from 2005’s double-album In Your Honor, Grohl and company played most of the band’s biggest hits, scattered in plenty of album gems (like 1999’s “Stacked Actors” and the Nirvana demo “Marigold”) and, just to keep everyone on their toes, played an acoustic set in the middle.
Through all of their hits, non-hits and banter, the Foo Fighter’s true strength shone brightest — these guys can flat-out play. The guitar riffs and vocals poured out effortlessly. The tough, bluesy interlude during "This is a Call" really surprised me, as did the gentleness of the acoustic numbers.
The signature moment of the night, though, came during Grohl’s solo reading of “Everlong.” A song you’ve heard a million times, whether you wanted to or not, I never truly appreciated its power until this evening. With the rest of the band gone following the end of the acoustic set, Grohl was left alone on the center of the floor armed with his Gibson electric.
From there, he gave a slow, burning, heartfelt rendition of his signature song. Each verse built up tension, until finally, the rest of the band reappeared on the main stage, crashing into the final chorus. Grohl sprinted back to the stage and screamed through the song’s final words. Breathing new life into old material is what separates good performances from the great ones, and this was so invigorating as to be shocking.
At their final inquest, maybe the Foo Fighters won’t be remembered as the most groundbreaking band ever. Maybe no song or album of theirs will change music forever, a la “Yesterday” or Nevermind. Maybe they're left off all the lists that Rolling Stone inevitably crafts five or 10 years from now. Maybe Grohl’s own sense of humor ends up being what keeps the band from being taken seriously by Pitchfork.
None of it matters. In the present, as has been the case for the past 13 years, the Foo Fighters are a band who make very good albums and put on even better shows. Their members have fun, and their leader is as talented, eccentric and funny as any personality in music in the past 20 years.
I can’t speak for you, but I know that’s all I’ll need to think about when it comes time to buy another ticket.