There is a casual tendency to observe the entirety of human culture as one long progression towards an evolved singular form – a belief that early art influenced the next wave influenced the next and so on, each form building on what came before it and improving it, making it better in pursuit of the ultimate form. There are truths and fallacies to this, to be sure – musical techniques have come a long way since Gregorian chants, but to say that the ultimate evolution of music ends with, say, “Uptown Funk” is to oversimplify the position. Music grows and changes, but is never a “set form” – there is no textbook end-all-be-all summation that says that this is the pinnacle of musical achievement, that it does not and will never get better than this.
Anyway, that’s all moot, because while Dave Grohl may not be the pinnacle of rock and roll evolution, he’s really fucking good at rocking out.
Yours truly took in the Foo Fighters at Wrigley Field on Saturday night, August 29th, 2015. Standing in the field, buffeted by rain, spilled beer, and thousands upon thousands of fans with no clear concept of concert etiquette (SERIOUSLY, YOU CANNOT COME ANY FURTHER FORWARD, BACK UP ALREADY, FOH CRAZY LADY), some friends and I took in three opening acts before having our minds melted and reforged into explosive particles by Dave Grohl’s band for two and a half hours. To recount this on a song by song basis would trivialize the night – so here’s the setlist if you’re curious about which greatest hits were rolled out. (Spoiler alert – all of them)
The Foo Fighters fall into a curious cultural niche. Their lead singer, founder, and all-around kinetic force of energy is Dave, the ex-drummer of Nirvana, but Nirvana belongs to Generation X and the last wave of grunge. Foo Fighters might be termed the best of the post grunge acts, but their sound is worlds away harder and more up-tempo than other post grunge acts like Stone Temple Pilots or (shudder) Creed. (Can you picture Scott Stapp singing “Everlong”? I think not.) They’re technically a 90’s band in that Grohl released their first album in 1995, but most of their power has come about in the early 00’s. Anyone who ever played the first edition Rock Band probably first heard “Learn to Fly” while banging away on a plastic electric drum stand – which sounds about right.
Because of their cultural gap, fans of all ages were spread across the field. There were older fans there, aging boomers come to see Cheap Trick want them to want Cheap Trick (think about it, it works, I swear). There were the rapidly aging Gen Xers sporting Nirvana shirts. There were older millennials in older Foo Fighters tour shirts, and younger fans sporting the latest edition. Part of what enables the Foo Fighters to wield such a wide spectrum of fans is the universal meh-ness of their music – they have several brilliant songs, several great songs, and a bunch of songs that sound really good when played really loudly with a lot of energy. Grohl isn’t trying to forge a masterpiece with his works, he’s just trying to do what he loves. And does he love it.
Because of a recent injury in a European concert (Grohl’s onstage explanation: “I broke my fucking leg.”), Grohl emerged at the beginning of the set seated atop a musician/Game of Thrones fan’s wet dream – a Guitar Throne modeled after the TV series’ Iron Throne, with guitar necks sticking out from all sides like sword hilts. Dave remained seated for a good portion of the show, standing occasionally, but mostly rocking out from the luxury of his wheeled throne. Grohl can best be described as a pure kinetic ball of energy – never at rest, he is a perpetually rocking motion machine. His hair was already matted with sweat after the opening trio of “Everlong”, “Monkey Wrench”, and “Learn to Fly”.
At no point did he hold still – it was possible to feel him shaking from across Wrigley Field. Grohl knows how to rock – and he knows how to make sure an audience has a good time as well. His banter was light and well received, and the audience was at his feet, ready to do whatever was called upon. When Grohl requested that every smart phone’s flashlight be turned on, the result was a panoramic spectacle as thousands of white lights lit up the night sky at the stadium. It might have been the most beautiful sight I’ve ever personally witnessed at a rock and roll show. Even Grohl was overcome by the moment, repeatedly shaking his head and laughing.
The band themselves play incredibly well – brief introductions featured excerpts from Van Halen, Yes, and Alice Cooper, showcasing their technical mastery – but the main focus of the band is Grohl. This was his party, a homecoming of sorts. The whole Sonic Highways tour is a sort of celebration of American popular music, highlighting the heritage of eight different cities (Chicago included), and this performance showcased Chicago in several senses. All of the opening acts (Urge Overkill, Naked Raygun, and Cheap Trick) are from Chicago or the northern Illinois area – Grohl related a story of seeing Naked Raygun at the Cubby Bear across the street, saying how it inspired him to be a rock musician.
And then there was the character of Wrigley Field itself. Playing outside in the elements is always fascinating, but it’s easy to see how playing at Wrigley could be just another stunt – musicians have been playing in stadiums for as long as both have been around. Instead, the venerable old stadium added to the sense of historical weight that Grohl was aiming to create. Brief clips of the Sonic Highways TV documentary played on the Jumbotron before the show, and the show’s technical managers utilized lights to bring different sections of the stadium into focus at appropriate times. Thanks to his understanding of the crowd and to the massive set’s technical capabilities, Dave was able to use the bleachers, grandstands, and infield to his benefit, calling upon each section as needed. “You’re not gonna start doing the fuckin’ wave, are ya?” he asked, winking down the left field line. The crowd responded by keeping their arms in the air – no waves were made.
Above all, the show was plain and simple fun. Dave looked to be having as good of a time as anybody, and he didn’t so much sing his band’s greatest hits as howl them down from the moon on high. “Let’s see who can lose their voice first,” he said early on, adding in a sly wink: “I’m genetically predispositioned to do this”. (Side note – Dave can probably still talk, but I have lost my voice. #worthit) Grohl may not have the expert showmanship of a Springsteen or the choreographed precision of a Jagger – rather, he has taken their energy and focused it on a refined and evolved punker’s rock – jagged power chords, amps turned to 11, and a scream for the ages. This is where the idea that music has evolved to the point where Grohl is the pinnacle of rock and roll is a concept that can be both true and false – there will be more kinds of rock music (or whatever comes along next), but Grohl is a combination of everything that has come before him.
The central idea of Sonic Highways is that a multitude of influences, ranging from Chicago blues to New Orleans jazz to Seattle punk, can all be heard in some fashion in the music we listen to today. This isn’t so much a revelation (I mean, duh) as it is a celebration, and who better to do it than one of the best live acts working today? The power of rock was in full evidence as Dave sat on his Guitar Throne on Saturday night. The future of rock may perpetually be in doubt, but as long as Dave Grohl continues to thrash and rage, the beating heart will continue to pulse. In recent years, Dave has become something of a spokesman for what one might call “organic” music, and that’s fine – shows like Saturday show that Dave is a man who loves what he does and is grateful just to be there.
Before playing his final song, he gave thanks to the crowd, calling attention to the little kids there eagerly lapping up his words, saying that they could be the next generation of musicians. As the crowd roared, Dave teared up and had to take several minutes to regain his composure before belting out the powerful intro to “Best of You”. By this point, I would have gone through the brick and ivy walls of the place if Dave had asked me to, so strong and powerful were my convictions, so fierce was my devotion.
Rock lives. And its name is Dave Grohl.
Editor’s Note: I completely forgot to mention why this was called “A Family Affair” – during the show, Dave brought out his cousin Tracy and his mom to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to them, along with the whole Wrigley Field crowd. That’s right – Dave Grohl stopped a god damned arena rock concert to sign Happy Fucking Birthday to his god damn mother. I loved my mother dearly and I was embarrassed when they brought out a god damn cupcake with a candle in it at restaurants growing up. The fuck have you done for YOUR parents lately? FOH Dave Grohl. FOH.