Sunday night at Voodoo, Foo Fighters play without consequences, and Trombone Shorty was a star.
It was bad enough that The Tontons couldn't play loudly enough to keep Foo Fighters from being heard at the rail in front of the band at Le Ritual Stage Sunday night. When Taylor Hawkins' snare was part of the soundtrack for Miss Pussycat's handmade puppet show an hour later, it was hard to fight the vibe of bro privilege that comes off the band. Soundbleed issues had been well managed all weekend, so someone could have tweaked the volume, but the attitude seemed to be Dudes just wanna rock, so let them, regardless of the consequences.
A version of the same phenomenon took place late in Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue’s set when bros came up to the front to stake out a spot for Foo Fighters, saw a wall of people, and pushed in anyway. There’s always room for bros. One big dude in a football jersey got into the crowd with his bros, then started jumping up to land on them, or jumping and pushing himself up off their shoulders, landing on others in the process. Sure, others were annoyed by them, but the dude just wanted to rock.
None of that is necessarily Foo Fighters’ fault. The band can't know onstage how far its sound carried, and if it could hand-pick its audience, I doubt it would have chosen a lot of people in the crowd. It probably wouldn’t have asked for the largest audience for one band I’ve seen at Voodoo—bigger than OutKast’s crowd, which was bigger than Nine Inch Nails’ and Pearl Jam’s last year.
But a band shapes its audience by making choices, and with three guitars and full-throated vocals, Foo Fighters have become hard without the threat. Pop without the softness. Serious without the gravitas. What could be more appealing than consequence-free choices? To do what you want without worrying about its effects on others?
For instance, Dave Grohl sang much of Sunday night’s set as if he was singing about life and death matters, but that relentless insistence has a flattening effect. When everything is presented as important, nothing seems more important than anything else. Shout long enough and it doesn’t mean anything.
There are good pop songs at the core of many Foo Fighters songs. Grohl and Hawkins’ affection for Cheap Trick makes sense as the band rocked up Beatlesque hooks, and Foo Fighters do the same, only with more rock. But what does all that heaviness convey? With Slayer Friday, it was the curtain of doom. For The Melvins, it was a fuck you to the cosmos and everybody in it. With Foo Fighters, it was often just hardness for hardness’ sake, and it wasn’t needed. The last half-hour featured a cover of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” “This is a Call” and “Everlong,” all of which were sleeker, stronger songs with none of the lumbering quality that mired big chunks of the show. Grohl’s vocals were more dynamic and there was space in the songs.
Foo Fighters were good Sunday night. They’re too solid to suck, and they have good songs underneath all the forced urgency. They made a lot of people very happy, and Grohl played up his one-of-usness when they covered Tom Petty’s “Breakdown” and “Under Pressure” (he’s a rock fan too!) and he talked about drinking a Mind Eraser in the French Quarter (he likes shots too!), so the audience felt connected to him.
But that identification conveys a form of permission. He’s like me; I’m like him. Party like a rock star, dude!
It’s probably not fair to Grohl and Foo Fighters that the casual way that band inhabited all the space it could made me imagine dudes listening to the band with their bros before going out for a night that will end with them roophying some woman. Or blasting them in the car while driving around and shooting out windows. Or listening to them and high-fiving someone else in the office after creating a new attack ad that carefully distorts the truth without telling a lie. I could only hear it as the sound of bros being bros.
Trombone Shorty’s set before Foo Fighters on Le Ritual was a less complicated success. Before Shorty, the only New Orleans act to play second-to-last on Voodoo's main stage was the Preservation Hall Brass Band. Frequently, locals play Le Ritual early and give way to national acts by late afternoon. But Shorty got a star time slot and played a star time show. He presented himself as a rock star and played a set made for that audience—as heavy as AWOLNATION before him, but without sacrificing any funk.
Shorty didn’t compromise his history and culture, playing a show that was likely 50 percent instrumental with a lot of room for soloing and jamming inside every song. But he put them in terms rock audiences could get. He moved regularly from moments that were purely about musicianship that let tension build to moments of showmanship that released the tension and let the audience get fired up.
Part of what was so interesting about it was that it was such a different show from his Jazz Fest set this year, which closed the festival on the Acura Stage. There, dressed all in white he played a straight-up funk set that stretched out with ease. Six months later, at night, and in front of a very different audience, he and Orleans Avenue seemed equally at home and equally able. They’ve become a band that can be what the moment needs and remain true to themselves. Shorty didn’t simply do well in the penultimate slot in front of Foo Fighters; he made it clear that he belonged there.