When We Love DC was invited to cover The Foo Fighters on Friday night at the Verizon Center I offered it up to one of our other music writers because, frankly, I just don’t listen to their music too much. I have much respect for Dave Grohl and all of the interesting projects he is responsible for, or has been a part of, but of all the music he has made The Foo Fighters is the most vanilla to me. When compared to crap on mainstream radio The Foo Fighters shine as one of the last examples of successful good rock music. But when you stack the band’s output up against Killing Joke or Nirvana, Probot or Scream; I am much more interested in all of the above. So I was content to pass this show up (even though the triple bill with Social Distortion and The Joy Formidable was intriguing). Then last minute scheduling conflicts reared their ugly head and I ended up pinch hitting this one anyway.
So I found myself sitting in a damn good seat at the Verizon Center not really knowing what to expect. The Joy Formidable, Social Distortion, and The Foo Fighters are all bands that somehow I have never seen despite my prolific live music experiences and their reputations as excellent live acts. To be quite honest, like The Foo Fighters, Social Distortion is a band that although I respect I never really listen to either. I’m much more of a DK or Black Flag man when it comes to West Coast Punk. A friend of a friend has been trying to talk me into The Joy Formidable for a couple years now and I went into the show probably the most curious about them. A few days before the show I posted on FB about the show by saying, “I’m expecting to be either seriously impressed or completely bored.”
I have to say that it is rare for me to enter into a show cold like this anymore. I know too much damn music to be surprised these days. I have seen just about everyone under the sun at this point (including bands I wish I hadn’t and bands I knew I shouldn’t). So the sheer coincidence of three notable bands, I haven’t seen before, playing together was pretty exciting to me. All week I tried to resist the urge to prep because I decided it would be best to go in completely cold. Of course I couldn’t help myself and by mid-week I was rocking out to The Foo Fighters’ latest “Wasted Light”* and The Joy Formidable’s “Big Roar”. No need to warm-up on Social Distortion since all their songs sound the same. If you’ve heard “Story of My Life”, you’ve heard them all.**
First up was The Joy Formidable; a power trio from North Wales with huge squalling guitars, deep bass, and a great live drummer fronted by female vocals that ranged from pretty to spunky. Having seen them now, I can see what that friend of a friend was so excited about by this band. The Joy Formidable harness that great shoegazer sound and inject it with Punk’s energy. There were times while watching lead singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan bounce around the stage that I felt like I was watching a truly great 80′s college radio band; she and her band-mate’s would fit right in along side Lush or Curve. In fact I’d say a cross between Lush and Curve could be a good way to describe this band. The highlight of their set was the finale. A titanic noise-wall that went on long enough to over-stay its welcome with most of the crowd. The size of my smile grew wider as the length of their noise-jam grew more ridiculous.
Next, Mike Ness led Social Distortion through a routine set of Social D standards. I know I have confessed to having never seen them live, but it was pretty obvious from the workmanlike performance that the band has performed this set a thousand times before. That said, the band sounded good and what the lacked in fire they made up for in set-list. If I am only ever going to see Social D perform once, I heard all of the Social D songs I would have hoped to hear in this set. They hit all of the “greatest hits” and closed with an excellent triple-play of “Prison Bound”, “Story of My Life”, and “Ring of Fire”.
During Social D’s set, Mike Ness said that, “The Foo Fighters play for 3 fucking hours. They’re fucking animals.” I thought, as I think many people did, that this was surely an exaggeration meant to pump up the crowd. Little did we know what Dave Grohl had in store for us. What followed was a 3-hour monster set by The Foo Fighters during which Dave Grohl reveled in the fact that he had finally sold-out the “big fucking venue in my home-town” and provided his hometown audience with possibly the best arena rock show they’ll ever see.***
Normally at this point I would give a blow-by-blow recap of the show and its many highlights. But this show was so full of surprises and genius rock showmanship that I feel to do so would be spoiling it.**** Just know that Dave Grohl is the spirit of rock & roll personified. He was so energetic and fucking stoked to be playing that big room that it was almost as if he willed it to be the greatest show on earth. It didn’t hurt that he had an excellent band backing him up, but really this concert was the Dave Grohl show. The man is a very special human being. He peppered stories, jokes, and observations through-out the night and constantly egged the crowd on to sing along and go crazy. You could see his huge smile from every corner of the Verizon Center and the sheer positivity beaming out of it was infectious. It made me think of Bad Brains “Attitude”; Dave Grohl got that PMA (positive mental attitude).
What most impressed me about the show though was how many of The Foo Fighters’ back catalog hits were rearranged for maximum theatrical effect. So many Foo Fighters songs are in the collective consciousness at this point that even without being a listen-at-home fan they are familiar. They are played so much, everywhere, that I know the words to songs like “Monkeywrench” or “Everlong” without even trying. So I was very taken with the live arrangements that would drop a guitar-vs-drums battle or a trippy jam in complete darkness into the middle of some of their biggest hits. This show was almost solo-crazy. To the point that some songs were stretched to their limits by them. Occasionally when the band would bring a song home after a 10 minute breakdown or freaky jam it was jarring to hear the chorus return. I’ll admit it was these crazy instrumental displays that I enjoyed the most. Now, granted I don’t know how much of these arrangements are regular parts of The Foo’s shows over the years. I hope many of them were unique to this tour because they sure felt special witnessing them in person.
The set list at a three hour show is going to be long and the band played every major single that I can recall. They also represented the new album “Wasted Light” by playing 6 or 7 songs off of it. This was fine by me since I think the new album is the best they’ve done. “Arlandria” was the most soul-stirring new song performed and featured one of Grohl’s best vocal turns of the show. “White Limo” was the most raw; the crowd seemed to tune-out a little during “White Limo” probably because it was the most ferocious and least friendly of the songs performed. In other words it was great; the song had a punk energy to it that was a decidedly different heat signature from the rest of their songs.
Punk wasn’t the only inspiration Grohl drew on however. I’d say that his love of Heavy Metal and particularly Metal showmanship was well represented on Friday night. Many of the solos and pull-out-all-the-stops instrumental explosions were text-book Metal glory reconfigured for Alt-rock purposes. The absolute highlight of the show is a prefect example of this. Grohl rushed down a runway to the far end of the Verizon Center and busted out an enormous guitar solo only to be answered by one from Chris Shiflett back on the main stage. This led to a multi-part guitar solo duel from opposite ends of the Verizon Center floor. The hugeness of their instrumentation was insane and that alone marks one of the coolest things I have seen live. But then to everyone’s surprise Grohl finished the battle by dropping to one knee while grinding his axe as the floor rose up under him. It was as if he were raising himself to the heavens with the power of his awesome guitar solo. By solo’s end he stood atop a second mini-stage at the back of the Verizon center as the undisputed winner of the battle. It was cheesy but only in retrospect. While it was happening it was one of the craziest, most effective, awesome things I have seen at a concert.
Even though The Foo Fighters set was three hours long and I don’t really consider myself a fan of their music, the show never felt long to me. I never tuned out or got bored with it. In fact it was the exact opposite. Grohl and his merry band had me completely captivated and highly entertained the entire time. I can honestly say that I didn’t want the show to end when it did. That’s one of the highest compliments I can give to a band and I can’t believe I just laid it on a band that I almost didn’t go see!
* For my money, “Wasted Light” is by far the most appealing album The Foo Fighters have done in their 16 year existence. I like almost every song and truly love two of them.
** Burn! Seriously though, I don’t think going beyond “White Light, White Heat, White Trash” is really necessary for the casual listener. That said, Social D’s sameness is a large part of their appeal for a lot of their fans who wrap Mike Ness’s tales of heart-ache and hard life around themselves like a warm blanket.
*** Unless they saw Muse in 2010.
**** Clue: A very special guest spot by an noise-rock legend from the mid-west who now lives in DC.