The Foo Fighters, Time Warner Cable Arena, Charlotte, November 8, 2011

>> Wednesday, November 09, 2011

I think the last time I saw the Foo Fighters, it was probably another century. I think it was just the first album that had come out, I'm pretty sure it wasn't the second, but it could have been. I can't remember if I was still in law school or had just finished. But the Foos were still--well, not exactly nobodies, obviously, but not arena gods, to be sure; they were still, "Hey, that's the drummer of Nirvana's band, right?" (And now I've already broken a rule that I had in mind for this piece: that I would try to write it without mentioning Dave Grohl's other, previous band. And it's only the first paragraph.)

There was a music festival in downtown Charlotte, and the Foo Fighters were playing on one of these stages set up on the street. They only played maybe twenty minutes, maybe less, because a mosh pit formed right in front of the stage and it went out of control really, really quickly. A friend I was with and I got sucked into the edges of the pit, and the experience resembled nothing so much as being sucked towards the craw of the Moskenstraumen like the hapless characters of a Nineteenth Century Gothic romance; we were five to ten years older than the kids thrashing about and didn't find the prospect pleasant. Grohl tried to keep the crowd tidy and occasionally succeeded before the rock became too powerful to resist, and eventually one of the organizers or someone from the city just pulled the plug before someone got stomped. But it was an awesome half-a-set.

The thing with Grohl--and now I'm about to break that self-imposed rule again--is that he was one of the most charismatic musicians I'd ever seen fronting a band, which had a sort of odd/terrifying implication about his other band; in Nirvana, they had someone with Grohl's magnetism sitting in the back behind a kit. Which, if you assume the most charismatic guy in the band gets put in the front, implies that Kurt Cobain must have had the starpower wattage of Elvis Presley, James Brown, and at least 2.4 Beatles. I don't know; I never saw Nirvana live and I wasn't really a huge fan until Cobain was dead and the hype had calmed down enough for me to listen to some of the songs again with more objectivity and realize they really were all that. But, anyway, if Kurt Cobain was somehow more compelling on a stage than Mr. Dave Grohl, I had to reevaluate just how intensely some people felt about Cobain personally, and not just Nirvana as a musical entity. Maybe there was something there beyond an undeniably talented songwriter, something truly magnetic.

So I've listened to a lot of Foo Fighters songs over the intervening decade-and-a-half but never really gotten around to picking up any albums. I like the Foos enough to want to be a fan but haven't put forth the effort (or pocket money) to deserve the title. Still, would have been tempted to see them live again even if their opening act hadn't been The Joy Formidable. I adore The Joy Formidable. I would pay fifty bucks, yes, just to see The J.F. erect a wall of sound and push it over to an audience (and me in it). This was a deal-sealer. The Joy Formidable and The Foo Fighters? Hell and yes.

Which led to a little bit of mild distress over the past few days when Facebook postings and misleading ticket text led me to the incorrect conclusion that the J.F. wasn't actually opening last night's show. I arrived at Time Warner Arena early anyway, because that's just how I roll when I'm going to a show, but I hadn't had dinner so I had to pay too much for a hot dog and then was on the escalator up to my cheap seat when the opening notes of "Abacus" started caroming dimly off the walls to me. The people directly in front of me were inadequately enthused, perhaps because they hadn't yet heard of a magical but still-pretty-obscure band from Wales, and they didn't break into a run up the escalator steps and I had to dart around them to get to my seat.

This has got to be a little unrewarding or nerve-wracking for a band: they're playing this arena and opening for a couple of legendary rock bands, but then the arena is mostly empty except for a small crowd of early adopters right there at the foot of the stage. I saw Joy Formidable at SXSW under a tent, in relative intimacy, and I've shared, here in the past, an embedded video of another SXSW performance where the band played in a bicycle shop; everybody is close together in these venues and the band's waves of roaring, howling noise fills the space up and immerses you. In a mostly-empty arena, The Joy Formidable made a suitably big noise but the effect was inevitably diminished, not through any fault on their part--it was another awesome set from them--but just because there needed to be more people there, or the walls needed to be closer together. Which is why you ought to go see them when you have a chance, folks, we need more people at Joy Formidable shows so their lovely din can find homes inside of people.

The second opening act was the legendary Social Distortion, a band that's been around forever but I realize I know remarkably little of their work in any firsthand kind of way. I actually posted an entry sharing their cover of "Ring Of Fire" not very long ago, but I'm embarrassed to admit I don't know much more of their work by name past that. It was, anyway, a great set and I liked the cuts they played from their new album, which I hope doesn't make me horribly uncool or anything. Or more uncool, as the case may be. A band that's been around for three decades ought to deliver a consummate show, and SD absolutely did, shredding the stage for a slightly bigger crowd than had gathered early for the Joy Formidable set.

And then, after about a half-hour for set dressing and load-in, the Foos took the stage.

The short version: this was one of the best rock and roll shows I've ever seen. I'd like to think I've seen some good ones, too.

One is tempted to look for faults, just so one doesn't sound fawning: "Oh yes, I adore The Joy Formidable, Social Distortion was fantastic and the Foo Fighters gave one of the best shows I've ever seen; may I remove my nose from somebody's ass now?" It sounds very fanboy, doesn't it?

I'm going to have to go back to violating the rule I abandoned way back in the first paragraph. It's unfair that Dave Grohl may always be in the shadow of his first successful band. Grohl was in Nirvana for four years and has been fronting the various lineups of the Foo Fighters, the band he created after Kurt Cobain's suicide, for sixteen. Nirvana, though it seems hard to believe, released only two actual studio albums with Grohl, while Wasting Light, the Foo Fighters' latest effort, is the band's seventh studio album. I suppose it's a little like Paul McCartney always being an ex-Beatle, when he's in fact been an ex-Beatle for vastly longer than he was in that band. And Grohl is still Nirvana's drummer even though he's been fronting a band that in most ways has been far more successful (though perhaps not as "exciting" or "significant", and I do mean those air quotes) than Nirvana ever was for a much longer time than Nirvana ever was.

The reason I think this context is necessary is that Dave Grohl has done what Kurt Cobain, sadly, couldn't: Grohl has embraced being a rock star, embraced the idea that what he's doing is at the intersection of art and commerce, and yeah, try to write meaningful songs but at the same time you're a salesman, a carnival barker, a class clown, a messiah. This made Cobain sad, he felt like a sellout or something. But if you're not selling out, why are you doing it? If it's about some kind of imaginary "authenticity" where you can't enjoy what you're doing or appeal to millions of people without being some kind of "fake" or "poseur", there's a coffee shop with an open mic night somewhere nearby. (Hell, Nirvana was up in Seattle, where they practically invented that kind of thing.)

I was talking about this kind of thing just a couple of weeks ago, actually. Ultimately, rock and roll is poseur music, is an artform that's as artificial as it is authentic, all about a crafted stance and carefully-posed position. It's synthetic in both the sense of being contrived and in the sense of being a combination of several things, two of which are artlessness and artiness.

It's not that being a rock star means being entirely fake; it's more that it's about being sincerely fake, or something like that. I mean, I don't think there's any real argument, for instance, that Bruce Springsteen sincerely and deeply believes in love and brotherhood and solidarity, that he cares about ordinary working schlubs and is passionate about faith and justice; but I also don't think there's any real room for doubt that "Bruce Springsteen" as you see him on an arena stage or hear him on an album is a well-played persona who may be inspired by or based on whoever or whatever Bruce Springsteen really is, but is nonetheless a role or character or even caricature. Or you can go with David Bowie, if you want, as kind of the standard-issue example of this sort of thing, except I think Springsteen is maybe a more informative illustration because "down-to-earth sincerity" is part of the character Bruce Springsteen plays when he goes onstage as "Bruce Springsteen", the paradox (if that's the right idea) being that I think Springsteen is probably a very sincere and down-to-earth guy when he's just sitting around the house watching TV and drinking beers or whatever. He's a sincere guy faking sincerity in an honestly sincere way, if I'm getting an idea across at all.

Which is why I mean it as a compliment to Dave Grohl when I say he's wonderfully fake and deprecating to Cobain when I say I don't think he could stomach the artifice of being lead singer in a rock and roll band, and that this is part of what is awesome and amazing about Grohl and dispiriting and tragic and pitiable about Cobain. Grohl embraces being a peculiar kind of entertainer, the rock star, with fey abandon and reckless energy, and has an easy charisma that makes him lovable even a million miles away in the nosebleed seats. The Foo Fighters played for close to three hours last night and for almost every minute of them, Grohl was running back and forth across the stage, mauling his guitars in much the way Pete Townshend used to when he had eardrums, running out onto a long bridge running way out from the stage to the sounddesk and back again, jumping up onto the dais where his drummer, Taylor Hawkins was furiously pounding away, flirting with the crowd and seeming to love every minute of it.

Springsteen might be the only other artist I've seen who performed with that much energy and abandon. (I saw Bono try, and it was a pretty good show from before U2 became a self-parody, but even then Bono was up on the edge of the precipice from whence a rock star's sincere fakitude becomes mere hokiness. Robert Plant probably could have cranked himself up to that if he'd really wanted to at the show I saw back in February, but was too deliciously laid back and chilled, and that was totally cool because (a) it was awesome and (b) Robert Fucking Plant can really do whatever the hell he wants, when you get down to it.) I also can't resist the Springsteen association because Grohl even has a similar kind of onstage relationship with drummer Hawkins that The Boss had onstage with the late and already missed Clarence Clemons, an entertaining partners-in-crime fraternity complete with banter, gestures and facial expressions. (An amusing bit of schtick that felt spontaneous despite the obvious planning featured Grohl and Hawkins appearing on the giant video monitors while backstage after the set, silently negotiating the length of the encore: Grohl holds up a finger to the camera, the audience cheers; Hawkins shakes his head "no" and holds up three fingers and the crowd goes nuts; Grohl mimes having a sore throat, and then back and forth. It reminded me in a very good way of Springsteen in an onstage huddle with The Big Man and Little Steven Van Zandt, ostensibly evaluating whether the audience was excited enough to be worth another song, as if they really weren't going to rip into the next number on the set list once the crowd had been driven sufficiently crazy, as if the crowd wasn't really in on the game from the start, too.)

Hawkins is a relentless drummer and Grohl wears rock godhood like he sprang fully-formed from the head of Chuck Berry (he did a great duckwalk at one point in the show, too, by the way). The remaining Foos, including former Nirvana touring guitarist Pat Smear, are great and keep up with the fierce energy Grohl and Hawkins generate without imploding into puddles of sweat, which is an achievement in a show like this, though I didn't hear anything from them that would blow me away quite like--well, for instance, since we've been beating Springsteen comparisons to death anyway--like, for instance Nils Lofgren waling away at the solo in "Youngstown" (but then, what is?).

It almost seems tacky to point out the last great reason to catch the band if you can, but times being what they are: I bought my ticket months ago and was shocked to rediscover at some point in the evening that it had a retail price of $31.05, or $45.05 in TicketMaster dollars. Shows left on the tour have retail prices in the forty-to-sixty-dollar range (fees included). The Joy Formidable went on stage at seven-almost-on-the-nose and the house lights came back on after the Foos' show just before midnight, with a couple of twenty-thirty minute breaks for set changes before and after the Social Distortion set and time spent teasing the audience before coming back out for the six-song encore; let's call the whole thing four, four-plus hours, and any of these acts--The Joy Formidable, Social Distortion, and certainly the Foo Fighters--are worth paying to see. Oh, and need I mention that acts who are past their prime routinely charge two or three times as much for shorter shows and don't have anyone of the caliber of The Joy Formidable or as legendary as Social Distortion opening for them? What I'm getting at, as if you can't figure it out, is that the Foo Fighters are out there in a day and age of bloated ticket prices offering some of the best value, most bang-for-your-buck rock and roll entertainment on the road today, a full-blown arena tour where three bands rock their balls off (or tits off, I guess, Ritzy--though I think you may have bigger balls, ma'am, rocktastically speaking, than most men who weren't formerly members of Zeppelin) for a third or less of what some geriatrics are charging the public to see them perform their greatest hits for eighty minutes. I mean, I guess I can't honestly say this show is cheaper than a movie--if you take your main squeeze and sit in the rafters, you'll be out ninety bucks, after all--but, then again, most movies aren't four hours long and leave you giddy with the particular kind of joy you feel communing with thousands of people in an arena full of good noise. I feel like I'm selling a car, here; this show would be a good deal at seventy bucks a ticket, at forty, it's practically theft.

Get out there if you can. I'm not wrong.


Phiala Monday, November 14, 2011 at 4:25:00 PM EST  

Aw, dammit. You saw Social Distortion, and you didn't even care. (Compared to the other acts, anyway.)


I had tix to see them in a small club. Pennsylvania changed its liquor laws between purchase and show (one of the clubs mentioned in that article was where I was to see SD), forcing the venue to cancel the show because it was no longer feasible to have all-ages shows.

That law drove the Crowbar out of business and wrecked the club music scene here. It's such a college-oriented town that it's impossible to have an over-21 show that makes money.

Eric Monday, November 14, 2011 at 4:37:00 PM EST  

No, no, no! I certainly didn't mean to sound like I didn't care about SD! It was an incredible show. But there is some guilty-as-charged re: the other acts--SD did a great show, but they were sandwiched between one of my new favorite bands and one of the best rock bands in the world of the moment, so, yeah, maybe a little bit of eclipsing as far as that goes....

But I wouldn't want that to be taken as diminishing them in any way; there's just only so much raving you can do in what proposes to be a serious review, y'know?

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