The lights went off and from the shadows a repeating terse series of guitar chords emanated throughout the Marcus Amphitheatre in Milwaukee. Five band members strolled across the stage and step-by-step took their places as Dave Grohl walked up to the microphone and in a whisper began to sing "All my life I've been searching for something " The 23,000 strong crowd bustled with exhilaration and as the other four members simultaneously converged into a carefully executed strapping jungle of eighteen distorted guitar strings. The sound discharging from the stage engulfed the audience and they in turn thrust their hands to the air in a moving rock n' roll salute and this was all during the opening number, "All My Life". The twenty-three song set was one I wish could have been bottled. The crowd reacted to each and every song like an old school rock n' roll show from decades back. They knew every word and no matter how ridiculous, they moved, shook and danced as if they had precious time left on this Earth. Many a critic likes to slag Dave Grohl for relying on templates previously set forth by bigger and better acts, but they're missing the point. The Foo Fighters have never been musical innovators but instead have consistently belted out record-after-record and left every concert stage with a pint of blood on it. Their Milwaukee performance during the second night of Summerfest was no different. In fact, it was all the more extraordinary as the Midwest has been experiencing an oppressive heat wave and show time temperatures were still in the lower nineties with a blanket of unfathomable humidity enclosing the crowd. The Foo Fighters came and delivered one colossal knock out. They were bombastic yet utterly beguiling throughout their nearly 140-minute performance. Instead of relying on stage tricks and eye-rolling moments of grandeur, they performed each song within an inch of their lives.
While the show may not have trekked down the road less taken, there was an underlying element of liberation song-after-song. The Foo Fighters dug into their bottomless reservoirs of energy lifting the crowd. The show opened with superhero intensity as the band shuffled through their hits with the same fervor when they recorded them; "The Pretender", "My Hero", "Learn to Fly" and "Long Road To Ruin" were delivered with a spark-in-the-dark concentration. Grohl's head banged away with some fantastic finger plucking on "Monkey Wrench" while "Big Me" and "This is a Call" had all the ingredients for a big sugary sweet pop number delivered with perfection. The Milwaukee crowd witnessed a full fledged roaring rock n' roll revival. While the show was filled with a heavy dosage of hits, it also had quite a few surprises which kept both the crowd and their band on their toes. "Breakout" was blistering and segued into "Message in a Bottle" by the Police with drummer Taylor Hawkins taking on lead vocals and was merely one of many moments that was not scripted. Upon the song's conclusion, the crowd (and Grohl) urged Hawkins for a drum solo he obliged with the beaming glee of a kid on Christmas morning. The shirtless Hawkins was the band's secret weapon keeping the maniacal backbeat and offering unexpected lead vocal turns on "Cold Day in the Sun" and the Pink Floyd cover, "In the Flesh". Covers were mixed throughout the show with two notable ones being a snippet of Cheap Trick's "Surrender" (performed by Grohl on a guitar he received from Rick Neilson) and a blues drenched rendition of Tom Petty's "Breakdown" which received a full performance.
Wasting Light was released fifteen months previously and the band technically don't have anything specific to promote, but it didn't stop them from pouring every ounce of enthusiasm into the performances and capturing everyone's imagination. Reading the set list of paper doesn't do the Summerfest performance justice. "Dear Rosemary", "White Limo" and "Arlandria" despite not being as seeped into our memory banks, never dragged. Credit must be given to Grohl as a front man, but massive props must be given to the Summerfest crowd who took part in dozens of call and responses throughout the show including "Arlandria" which was downright grand, while "Walk" found the crowd with clenched fists rise to the air as the song ascended to a higher plan due to the six members on the stage (Rami Jaffee, best known for the Wallflowers, filled in on organ-piano-keyboards on select songs). "Walk" could have been a huge pop hit, but instead they settled for making a simply great rock song. "These Days" was a pensive rocker delivered with all the strength of a band wanting to convey every last emotion that escapes from their heart. The Foo Fighters have catchier songs, faster ones, heavier ones but few are as good as "These Days" whose lyrics penetrated through the wall of humidity and hazed minds to make an impression that will remain even after the buzz fades for the majority of the audience.
Their fantastic documentary, Back and Forth (now available on DVD and BluRay) threw the band's history onto celluloid for the world to see, warts and all. It's a historical film focusing on the challenges they endured year-after-year, record-after-record. When the revolving door of band members stopped, there was in-fighting, addiction and in the end, an understanding of how each of them tick. Back and Forth is a distinctive documentary in that it tells hard truths, doesn't sugar coat the members of their history and yet you feel closer to the band at the end of it. Further, it's good enough to sire a believer who had not been one previously. A decade from now, Dave Grohl will be onstage at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame giving a heartfelt and humor filled acceptance speech everyone will love as the leader of the Foo Fighters. What makes this near certain event so staggering is the fact that Grohl will join an elite group consisting of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Ron Wood, Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck as musicians who have been inducted to the Hall more than once. Granted, the institution of the Hall means nothing to ninety-nine percent of the human race, but my point is that no one, and let me emphasize this, no one could have imagined in 1992 that Dave Grohl would be where he is today.
At the end of the 140-minute show, it was clearly evident that the Foo Fighters bear a fervor rarely seen in large concert halls these days. Their music may not break musical boundaries but they're so spot-on and tap into a sweet spot in our heads, we can't deny it. Formulaic sure, but if you made a chocolate cake from the simplest of ingredients, would you try and mess with it if is tasted great? Many who write about music for a living are so concerned with what artists create and capture on record and in concert they overlook what matters most- whether or not it can connect to the listener. The Foo Fighters are a hard-nosed band who isn't afraid of wrapping heavy riffs around flourishing melodies and hooks to bond with their audience. An overwhelming majority of their catalog is heavy enough to bang your head to, yet is infused with a silver lining of optimism in their lyrics. It's ironic that Grohl came to most people's consciousness as one of the charter members of the doom and gloom club and yet two decades later, he's one of its sole survivors and year-after-year finds a way to inspire and transform not just his band but his audience as well. Converging their classic rock, indie and alternative DNA on record has proven to be a blessing as the Foo Fighter's music has been used as a battle cry for millions who don't feel they have a voice. We all have this piece of us that is never content and it lingers there wanting to be filled. Listening to the evening's finale, "Everlong", that gap dissipated for me. Through the instruments in their hands, the Foo Fighters managed to trounce the anxiety, doubts, fears and troubles that swirl around my head on a daily basis. This wasn't a temporary retreat but a full on surrender I watched the steely determination of each member and Grohl's incandescent vocals rise above as he thrillingly synthesized a personal awakening for each of the 23,000 in attendance including myself. Many may have entered the amphitheatre for an evening of entertainment to distract them from the real world but all left with an inspired mindset to not just ignore the world, but to face it head-on where we won't stop even when we're told when.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Foo Fighters: Unyielding and Unrepentant