Wednesday, 7 November 2007
the very last one in a very long line...
Foo Fighters @ Birmingham NEC, 6th November 2007
Q: What did the drummer say just before he got fired?
A: "Hey, guys, let's try one of my songs!"
Let's face it: the history of rock is not exactly littered with glorious examples of drummers turned frontmen. For better or for worse, it's a sub-genre that has more or less been terminally discredited by the towering success of Phil Collins.... until Dave Grohl came along, anyway.
Grohl was, of course, the last and most famous of Nirvana's drummers. The bones of the Foo Fighters' first album came together when Grohl stepped out from behind his drums and filled up some of the empty studio time spent waiting for Kurt Cobain to turn up to finish "In Utero" by recording demos of his own songs, including "This is a Call". Foo Fighters have now recorded more albums and been together for longer than Nirvana. They're long been a bona fide headline act, capable of selling out enormous venues like Hyde Park, and Grohl himself is universally esteemed as "the nicest man in rock". Yes siree. Life is pretty good for Dave Grohl. Although I'm sure he would never say this himself, Kurt Cobain killing himself may just have been the best thing that ever happened to his career. As I said in the Art of Noise A-Z,
"For some reason John Lennon’s quip about Ringo springs to mind, but let’s twist it around a little. The best songwriter of his generation? Cobain wasn’t even the best songwriter in Nirvana."
Well, perhaps that's a little bit harsh. I'm not convinced that the Foo Fighters have yet produced a truly great album, but there's no denying now that Foo Fighters now have a mighty impressive back catalogue and in due course will put together a fantastic greatest hits package: This is a Call, Everlong, All My Life, Monkey Wrench, My Hero, Best of You, Learning to Fly, Stacked Actors, D.O.A., Times Like These, The Pretender.... all songs that the band play tonight in a set that stretches out to two hours long.
I've never seen them playing before, so Foo Fighters have been at the top of my list of bands to see live for some time. When they announced the dates for their UK tour, I eagerly snapped up tickets to the venue nearest to me... the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. They're clearly very popular, and in spite of my best efforts, I was unable to get hold of any standing tickets and considered myself lucky to get anything at all. Of course, not a week passed before the band then announced another batch of dates, including the much more accessible and convenient Nottingham Arena. Pah. What can you do? Still, mildly annoying journey up the M42 aside, this was a gig I was very much looking forward to.
Sarah, Mark and I arrived at the venue a little before 8pm, which I thought was pretty good going, but we still managed to only hear Serj Tankian's support set from the food court where we were paying through the nose for a rather limp microwaved chicken burger and chips. He sounded pretty good through the stands, and to be honest I was a little disappointed not to watch his set properly, but my stomach was calling.... One to catch another day, perhaps in a smaller venue.
As we finished off our horrible burgers and waited for the headline act, we watched the crowd and listened to the PA system working its way through a number of quite metal tracks (including Grohl's own "Red War" from his Probot side project. Magnificent.) As befits a man with Grohl's CV and back catalogue, it was a very mixed crowd. There were a few people around with lots of piercings and tatoos, of course, but they were comfortably outnumbered by people with short, tidy hair who had come to watch the gig with their girlfriends. There were also quite a lot of kids present, including the coolest and most rock 5 year old I have ever seen in my life, who headbanged and threw the air-horns all the way through the set (coming particularly to life during "Monkey Wrench", as featured in the popular console game "Guitar Hero II"). That's the thing about the Foo Fighters though: for all that Dave Grohl has a heavy metal soul and a deep and abiding love for hard rock music, when it comes down to it, his band are actually extremely melodic. Yes, sure... there are guitar solos and loud drums and little metal interludes and shouty bits, but basically this is all very tuneful stuff. It's rock that girls can like (not to mention the fact that I believe that Grohl himself is something of an object of desire for many people... well, he's a fine looking fella, he's by all accounts a decent chap and he's very, very rich. What's not to like?).
The band burst onto stage at 20:50 and played solidly for two hours. They played a bit of stuff off their new album, but mainly they worked their way through their back catalogue and played us the hits from all of their albums. Sometimes the core four-piece of the band were bolstered by an additional guitarist (Pat Smear), a keyboard player, a cellist and even a supplementary drummer... but really this is all about Dave Grohl and he's very much he centre of attention. As they usually do, the band had a long runway down the front of the stage that enable Grohl to charge down and get closer to his people. About halfway through the set, a smaller stage was unveiled at the end of this runway, and the band decamped there to play an acoustic interlude, ending with "Everlong" played by Grohl alone, unaccompanied by the rest of the band.
They were really very good. The older stuff is noticeably simpler and is - not surprisingly - a lot more 'grunge', but it's all good. It wasn't perfect: I wasn't sure about all of the songs, and I thought bits of the acoustic set dragged (seeing the Foo Fighters playing acoustic material reminds me a bit of watching Radiohead playing electronica... you can't escape the feeling that this isn't what they do best and is something that other people can do much better). But damn it, they do what they do really, really well, and it was a bloody good show. Grohl is a consummate entertainer. He does this almost every night of the week, but somehow he manages to convey the impression that there is nothing in the world that he would rather be doing and nowhere else he would rather be and his enthusiasm is infectious. When the band finally disappeared after a barnstorming version of "All My Life", instead of that slightly tedious few minutes where the crowd cheers for an encore and then starts to get a little bored, we were instead kept entertained by Grohl holding a handheld camera backstage and negotiating with us over how many songs they should come back and play. We had decided upon three, but pretty soon Grohl told us that this looked like one of those nights were they just played and played until they dropped, and after the third song informed us that they were now no longer playing for our benefit, but were playing for themselves and the sheer joy of being in a rock band. You certainly didn't hear the crowd complaining about that (the only boo of the night was when Grohl declined to put on a g-string that had been thrown on the stage and to pose for a photo... but even that was a good natured kind of a boo). Maybe he does this every night, but it was the first time I'd seen the band play, and I lapped it up.
In the car on the way home, we listened to "More Than a Feeling" by Boston, and the similarities with lots of what we had just heard at the gig were obvious.... Grohl has a hard rocking exterior, sure, but he's got a heart of pure MOR. Cobain famously quoted Neil Young in his suicide note, saying that it was "better to burn out than to fade away". Foo Fighters are showing no signs of either just yet.
Verdict: 8 / 10.