By Spencer. “Did you think there was any fucking way I was gonna cancel this show?!” Dave Grohl screamed from his throne at center stage—a contraption made up of lights and guitar necks that was seemingly dreamed up by some unholy mind meld of George R.R. Martin, George Clinton, and George Jetson. Grohl broke his leg two weeks ago when he fell off the stage during a show in Sweden, and everyone had feared that yesterday’s festival, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the band’s 1995 self-titled debut album, might not go on. But just as they’ve been doing for two decades and counting now, the skeptics underestimated Dave Grohl.
If you haven’t seen Foo Fighters live yet, then you’re among the unconverted. You probably recall the band for having a surprising number of solid radio hits and an even more surprising longevity. But until you’ve seen them live, you don’t understand. I was the same way, until I saw them as the headliners at the Austin City Limits festival way back in 2008. Some of the more indie-oriented music fans in the crowd—including, ahem, fellow S&N contributors Antony and Mark—didn’t even bother sticking around for the Foo Fighters’ set, and they missed what was easily the highlight of the festival. What I discovered that night and during the three Foo Fighters shows I’ve seen to date is that Dave Grohl is easily the most underappreciated live performer out there.
It starts with his inexhaustable energy. When Grohl broke his leg two weeks ago, just two songs into his set, he still finished the show. And last night, forced to sit through a two-and-a-half hour setlist with his shattered and screwed-together leg elevated at all times, you’d think immobility would have taken away from that energy. You’d be wrong. After a 30-minute video intro compiled from the band’s HBO documentary series, Sonic Highways, the curtain came down with a blistering version of “Everlong,” followed by an even more thundering version of “Monkey Wrench”—each song extended to epic lengths. See, there are bands who play the songs just like you know them from the album, and then there are bands that turn every song into something new. The Foo Fighters fall within the latter category, and it’s what makes them such a force to be reckoned with on stage. Songs build to rapid-fire crescendos, instrumental interludes expand upon the quiet parts, and Grohl knows how to work a crowd into a singalong of thousands. It’s what turns songs like “The Pretender” or “All My Life” or “Breakout”—songs you may think are just fine from the studio renditions you know—into lifelong favorites that take on a whole new depth and power.
And another key part of the mix is Grohl himself: the man, the personality. He’s a living rock legend thanks to his time in Nirvana, but that’s kind of hard to imagine when you hear him talk. He has a perverse sense of humor that seems to ground him; case in point, at last night’s concert, he made sure to show YouTube footage of his fall from the stage in Sweden on multiple repeat. He even brought his mom, a former public school teacher, out on stage for an ovation—and if you can believe it, he seemed even prouder of her than she undoubtedly is of him.
In recent years, first with Sound City and then with the Sonic Highways television series, Dave Grohl has established himself as a sort of Martin Scorsese figure in the area of popular music. His love of all genres and his encyclopedic knowledge of music history make him the perfect ambassador for rock, and it formed the centerpiece of the Sonic Highways series, which focused on the musical heritage of eight different American cities. This sense of history and shared culture was also a theme of yesterday’s festival, which didn’t focus just on the Foo Fighters’ anniversary, but also featured a wide range of the acts from Sonic Highways that inspired them: Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, Gary Clark, Jr., Heart, LL Cool J, Trombone Shorty, Trouble Funk, and an absolutely epic set from blues legend Buddy Guy (accompanied by a 16-year-old blues prodigy, Quinn Sullivan, who managed to one-up every other guitar soloist at the festival).
When you hear Grohl’s love of music in all its varied forms, and when you experience in person the genuine joy he seems to feel every single time he gets to perform for his fans, it’s impossible not to like the guy. Twenty years into his career as a Foo Fighter, he seems to love making music even more than he did in his youth. And yet none of that youthful energy is gone. It has only been seasoned by the wisdom of age and a fuller appreciation for the greats who came before him—a community of legends of whom Grohl never quite seems to realize he is most definitely a member.
History will always remember Dave Grohl first and foremost as the drummer for Nirvana. And maybe he will never again match the artistic heights of the music he made with Kurt Cobain and Krist Novaselic in the early 90s. But hearing him celebrate twenty years of Foo Fighters, you realize that the end of Nirvana may have been the best thing for him. Because in the life and the band he’s built since then, he seems to have found genuine happiness. And that’s worth celebrating.
Learn To Fly
Something From Nothing
Band Intro: Hot For Teacher (Van Halen Cover) / Another One Bites The Dust (Queen Cover) / Owner Of A Lonely Heart (Yes Cover)
Cold Day In The Sun
My Hero (Acoustic)
Times Like These (Acoustic)
Under Pressure (Queen Cover)
All My Life
For All The Cows
Alone + Easy Target
This Is A Call
Best Of You
Photos courtesy of Kevin Mazur / FooFighters.com