all words: Andy Johnson
all photos: Franz Mahr
During the encore of Friday’s Foo Fighters concert at the Verizon Center, Dave Grohl, basking in success in front of a sold-out hometown crowd, said he knew he made it when he could “make the entire crowd do the wave with just [his] face.” The audience, galvanized from the incredible 3-hour show, acquiesced, and as Grohl pirouetted on the elevated platform, the showgoers waving their hands in synchronized, cheesy exaltation, DC’s favorite son (apologies to @KDTrey5) beamed brightly, aware that after 16 years as the front man of one the world’s most popular, hardest working arena-ready acts, he achieved his personal nirvana.
Grohl is the last of a dying breed: the legitimate rock star. The success of Grohl’s “other band” may have immolated hair metal, but “their” success led record executives scrambling to push alternative rock acts, regardless of merit. It’s sad that “his” death was directly responsible for the homogenization of mainstream rock, giving America such luminaries as Incubus, Creed, and Hoobastank. As a fervent fan of the Detroit Lions football franchise and an appreciator of the nebulous genre known as “not-shitty music,” the NFL’s announcement that Nickelback would play at halftime during the Lions’ game at Thanksgiving is a triple whammy for me, like a girlfriend telling you she’s cheating on you… with your best friend… in front of your family as you’re tripping on tryptophan.
But while modern radio’s decline is only rivaled by the Redskins’, it has led to a wellspring of creativity in the independent rock circuit. Anyone who claims that there is no good music anymore is a dense fuddy-duddy, for the ubiquity of blogs and file-sharing networks make it stupid easy to find out about new music that’s not only good, but can be refined to be personally attractive to your unique tastes.
It is indeed a good thing that we are at a place in history where the existence of the world wide web has made it able for, say, a bearded dude in a Wisconsin cabin to widely disseminate his requiem of loneliness, catapulting him to the forefront of the music industry. I very much doubt that without websites like Pitchfork and the web’s legion of musical arbiters, Justin Vernon would have ever appeared alongside Yeezy at Coachella (nor would he destroy the 9:30 Club).
However, a problem with the independent music scene (and, specifically, its tastemakers) is that with the gatekeepers of MTV and modern rock torn down, it’s a free-for-all. In order to attempt to classify today’s weird sounds, critics are forced to slice and dilute music into a myriad of subgenres, fractured into terms like dubstep, chillwave, and personal favorite night bus. While such phrasing can accurately describe the noise (night bus, for example, is downtempo music that emotes the empty feeling of taking public transportation home, alone, after a night of clubbing), the mere spinoff of this new microgenre further distances itself from more popular genres.
This is a roundabout way of saying that because there is so much freaking music out there, there’s nothing a large percentage of the population can rally around. Because there are no titanic acts in waiting to be our generation’s Led Zeppelin or U2, we are forced to look to alternatives to supplement our populist wants. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but it is a thing.
There are, of course, some contenders, but they fall short. Kings Of Leon lack the creativity, Arcade Fire lack the swagger, and Coldplay lack the coolness to compare to become “the bands that we want to hear,” to crib a line from Against Me. Radiohead, for all intents and purposes, are the most interesting band in the galaxy, and I earnestly await their tour next year, but as proven by the polarizing The King Of Limbs, Yorke & company are content with releasing glitchy, experimental tunes that appeal more to the head than the heart. If I can quote the always quotable Noel Gallagher, “Them writing a song about a fucking tree? Give me a fucking break! A thousand year old tree? Go fuck yourself.”
Gallagher is not alone in his belief that Radiohead “constantly make difficult electronic records” as opposed to “very accessible rock and roll music.” Dave Grohl recognized this, and trumpeted that the Foo Fighters’ newest album, Wasting Light, would be a return to basics. I’m not implying that the Grohl ever picked up an MPC, but after wasting life goofing around in hard rock bands for the past decade, it was time to fill a niche that was sorely needed filling: very accessible rock and roll music.
The man, after all, is a drummer at heart, and drummers exist to make as big as a racket as possible. Wasting Light is the band’s best reviewed album since 1997’s breakthrough The Colour and the Shape, and the re-hiring of former rhythm guitarist Pat Smear and self-production in his San Fernando Valley garage make it very clear that Grohl wants to recapture his halcyon “Everlong” days when the Foos ruled Viacom’s networks and provide a solid rock show for people who just wanted to have some beers and get their mind off the shitty economy, terrible politicians, and kiddy-diddling coaches.
For the Wasted Life tour, the band wisely chose two bands that represent the past and future of modern rock. The future is represented by The Joy Formidable, a Welsh trio touring on support of The Big Roar, one of my favorite albums of the year.
The album’s title is an appropriate starting point for describing the band’s sound, an anthemic rush that recalls ‘90s alt-rockers, although they trend more toward the shoegazey-psychedelic Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream sound than that of Foo’s radio friendly unit shifters. “A Heavy Abacus” and “Austere” showed off singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan’s technical acumen, while single “Cradle” demanded the attention of the sparse crowd as she sang, “I wish the cobwebs would cover me.”
As the trio’s final song “Whirring” descended into feedback, Bryan banged on a gong several times as the crowd cheered. But this was not enough to sate the masses. As the rhythm section pounded away and Bryan continued to generate noise that would only be found at Dulles, she unsheathed her guitar and furiously whipped it into the gong.
There were not that many people in the Verizon Center around to witness this, but the few middle-aged folk around me were lit up by this act of defiance, a tacit acknowledgment that Grohl chose wisely when he cosigned such a promising young group.
Social Distortion represented rock’s past, a band that formed when Grohl was a decade old. Social D served as an interesting counterweight to Joy F’s bloggy hipness and Foo F’s mainstream appeal, a legitimate punk band in the been-there-done-that sort of sense.
I find it a bit amusing that a band’s signature song, “Story Of My Life,” opens with a lyric of “high school seemed like such a blur,” a statement coming more true considering the band’s age and history with substance abuse. Singer/guitarist’s Mike Ness’ lyrics of “life goes by so fast / you only want to do what you think is right” hit a little deeper for the aging punks in the crowd. It’s one thing to gel a Mohawk. It’s another thing to dye it.
The band produced a tight set as Ness and his troupe of mercenaries (as expected by a band that’s been around for 30 years, it relies on a rotating cast of live musicians) punctuated songs from their newest album, Hard Times And Nursery Rhymes, with the few hits that they’ve managed to cross into the mainstream. For a punk band, I was a bit underwhelmed that there was little response from the crowd, and it wasn’t until Ness introduced his ode to fighting racism, “Don’t Drag Me Down,” that the young folks in the pit began to gyrate.
Ness does deserves props for co-opting Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” at a time when the Man In Black was uncool, recording their version several years prior to Cash’s rebirth under uberproducer Rick Rubin. The song was well-received, as the suddenly-full audience hummed along that “the taste of love is sweet / when hearts like ours meet.”
However, it is notable that the band’s best song remains a 21-year-old cover of a 48-year-old country jam. Indeed, life does go by so fast, but as the Foo Fighters were about to prove, you don’t have to rest about your laurels, condemned to think about “the good times we had and why they had to end.”
Ness warned the crowd that, “You’re in for a hell of a show. They’re gonna play for three hours.” I had some doubt. Three hours is a long time for any band, especially for one augmented with two opening acts. Plus, dropping 20+ songs on a crowd would surely lead to ennui and sobriety, two no-nos for memorable concert.
But Ness wasn’t joking. They played for three hours. And I wasn’t bored at all. Ladies and gentlemen, I think we need to give serious consideration that the Foo Fighters are the best arena-ready band in the world.
About 9 o’clock, the lights dimmed, and the quintet blazed through “Bridge Burning,” the crunchy opening track off Wasting Life. The crowd was instantly electrified, responding as Grohl, long-haired and bearded, ran around the stage, pointing skyward to the cheap seats, encouraging his fans to make as much noise as possible. This was also the first concert I’ve seen at the Verizon Center that did not block off the rear of the arena, making this a quasi-“concert-in-the-round” experience.
The Foos went H.A.M. through “Rope” and “The Pretender,” the latter reaching an intensity where drummer/goldilocks Taylor Hawkins broke one his sticks, yet recovered effortlessly, no notes wasted. Grohl challenged the crowd to “sing a Foo Fighter song” as the introduction to the erroneously-attributed Kurt Cobain/John McCain ode “My Hero.” As Grohl ran through barricade separating the two halves of the crowd, we could see our hero at work, watching him as he goes.
As he introduced VH1-staple “Learn To Fly,” Grohl remaked that “Fucking, it feels good to be here,” and noting this was the first time he sold out the Verizon Center. Considering it was his hometown show, he informed the delighted onlookers they’d play extra hard, even considering playing “every fucking song we know,” a comment that made the ushers wince.
“White Limo” is a product of Grohl’s moonlighting in Queens of the Stone Age, a rocker featuring precise drumming from Hawkins. Of course “Arlandria,” an ode to the suburb located between the two Northern Virginia areas, got a massive pop, as Grohl sang, “My sweet Virginia, I’m the same as I was in your arms.” Grohl introduced the band – underrated guitarist Chris Shiflett, bassist Nate Mendel of Sunny Day Real Estate fame, the taciturn Pat Smear, who arguably got the biggest cheer of the night (even more than Grohl!), and, of course, “the drummer” Taylor Hawkins, who won brownie points by acknowledging that he had married a Virginia girl. Grohl said that “we’ve played every shithole in this city” and thanked the crowd for sticking with the band for the sixteen years, as “we used to suck, but now we shred ass.”
Speaking of ass-shredding, I was pleased to see the Wasting Light songs go over so well, but the band deserves credit for mutating their older songs. “Breakout,” a song most noted for appearing on the soundtrack to that schizophrenic Jim Carrey cop movie (Whatever happened his funny movies? Maybe you’ll get a chance to ball Emma Stone if you stop doing shit like Mr. Popper’s Penguins.), brought the assemblage to their feet, and Hawkins got a turn on lead vocals for “Cold Day in the Sun,” as Grohl ran around and sat on the amp behind him, playfully fucking with his friend.
I peeked at previous night’s set list prior to the show, and I was amped to see they would play “Stacked Actors,” a deep cut off 1999’s There Is Nothing Left To Lose, and one of Grohl’s many swipes at Courtney Love. The song was a barnburner, but I wasn’t expecting Grohl to run out into the middle of the Verizon Center, ascend (!) upon a elevated platform, and into a fierce guitar duel with Shiflett that can only be described in cliché terms like “epic” and “facemelting.”
After this ridiculous affair, the band cooled down with the ballad “Walk.” Grohl, still incensed from his battle, espoused his love of rock’n’roll and told aspiring musicians to “close your computer and buy one of these,” before tearing into the opening of fan-favorite “Monkey Wrench,” complete with a drum solo from Mr. Hawkins.
Considering his past flirtations with the USO, it was no surprise that Grohl dedicated “These Days” to the veterans in the crowd. Unfortunately, he missed the opportunity to dedicate “Let It Die” to the numerologists in the crowd, celebrating the mysticism of 11/11/11. I say this in jest, but then again, we are talking about a man who named his band after flying saucers and aerial phenomena.
“This Is A Call” was introduced as the Foo’s very first song, one Grohl wrote after he was, um, downsized in April 1994. The chorus of “This is a call to all my past resignation” is even more poignant sixteen years into the game, and the choice of covering Pink Floyd’s “In The Flesh?” is appropriate; a call to past arena heroes. Hawkins’ rendition of “So ya thought, ya might like to go to the show?” tempered Roger Waters’ bitter sarcasm, as we truly did want to go to this show, and, moreover, we could tell that the band did as well.
What made this show so enjoyable was that you could tell that Grohl and company were having a hell of a time. Even Smear, who didn’t say an entire word the whole show, cracked a smile, amused by Grohl’s never-ending energy. “All My Life” was the perfect closing song, as the crowd hopped along to the chorus of “Hey, don’t let it go to waste / I love it but, I hate that taste.”
It was only 11 o’clock when the main set ended. Grohl had promised us that he’d play “a lot of fucking songs,” and to his credit, he did drop 17 songs on us, a hefty set by most calculations. But, as a playful backstage night video sequence between Grohl and Hawkins would show, they weren’t done yet.
Grohl retook his mantle on the elevated platform, and waxed nostalgic about growing up in Springfield, VA, smoking bowls, and revisiting dead shopping malls. He then spun into an solo-acoustic rendition of “Wheels,” a bonus track, but you’d never know it was a rarity as the throng of Foo fans sang “Well I wanted something better man / I wished for something new.”Additionally, while I’m still remain ambivalent about the song’s sloppy lyrics, there is something inspiring about watching 19,000 people chant “Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you?” in unison. Some songs are just better live.
Grohl’s nostalgic trip continued onward as he recounted his days recorded One By One in his Alexandria studio, eventually bringing the rest of the Fighters back out as the song segued from the acoustic into the electric. He brought out DC-resident Bob Mould of Husker Du and Sugar fame, one of his heroes, to perform the new two tracks, “Dear Rosemary” off Wasted Light and Tom Petty’s “Breakdown,” a song that Grohl is familiar with when he was temporarily a Heartbreaker. He dedicated “Rosemary” to the first girl he ever loved and subsequently crushed him. This middle-aged heartbreaker was in the crowd about three rows in front of me, and to his credit, she may have held the title of “most beautiful girl in the world” for a brief period in the 1981, but as Sufjan Stevens once said, all things go.
The final song of the evening was, of course, “Everlong,” their megahit and one of the best songs of the ‘90s. During the encore, Grohl knew claimed that he knew what he what us, the press, were going to write about in this concert review. He said that everyone wanted to talk about what happened 20 years ago. But Grohl said, “I don’t wanna be the same person I was 20 years ago…fuck 20 years ago” And he’s right. Grohl isn’t a scraggly haired drummer anymore, and Foo Fighters aren’t the same band they used to be. Indeed, they are better. A lot better.
Grohl was touched by the fans’ response, and vowed that he’d come back in 2012 and play a four-hour set at the 9:30 Club. I don’t know if he was just trying to get us amped, or if it actually meant it, but it would be tough to top what I witnessed. I say this with no hyperbole that this was one of the best, the best, the best, the best concerts I’ve ever had the privilege of attending. And if it this 9:30 Club show does come to fruition, and if that performance could ever feel this real forever, and if their show could ever be this good again, well Dave, we’re waiting here for you, everlong.