Saturday night, Dave Grohl and company showed that sometimes more is just more.
Foo Fighters’ show Saturday night at Voodoo raised some questions. How did Dave Grohl go from hardcore punk and Nirvana to side three of The Song Remains the Same? How did someone who’s musical upbringing moved from such economical, intense music to songs that stretched out into slack blues jams? How do people who seemingly love pop as much as Grohl and drummer Taylor Hawkins let so many songs drift into unproductive stalls that do little more than create the dynamics that Nirvana built into its song structures? Nirvana alternated between quiet and loud as it moved from verse to chorus, while Foo Fighters start that movement after grinding out three to four minutes of the song. Maybe if I would have paid more attention to Sonic Highways on HBO ….
On a cool, crisp night in City Park, Foo Fighters made the substantial crowd happy. Really, that’s what the band specializes in more than anything else. Grohl’s Crown-and-Coors-Light onstage persona communicated clearly to the crowd, I’m one of you, and his classic rock populism is part of that. The songs in performance embrace the eternal rock ’n’ roll verities of Beatles songs and Led Zeppelin power, so from the staple “My Hero” to “Run” from the recent Concrete and Gold (which they only visited twice Saturday night), songs were overheated, so much so that Grohl’s screaming became one of the subjects for of his onstage patter.
Ultimately, that made the Foo Fighters’ show a lot about power. It’s is certainly the subtext of heavy metal, but it’s also the force at the heart of our thorniest social issues. The Harvey Weinstein, John Besh and Mark Halperin stories share unexamined, unchecked exercises of power, and the question central to the NFL player protests is how those in power avoid repercussions for taking the lives of so many African-American males. It’s hard to hear Foo Fighters reassert classic rock values from a “simpler time” without critique or irony and separate them from the structures that allow power to be used so callously.
At times, the band returned to the ‘70s productively. Grohl and Hawkins brought out Roger Taylor of Queen’s son Rufus to play drums while Hawkins sang “Under Pressure,” and keyboard player Rami Jaffee added some Born to Run-era Roy Bittan piano to a stripped down, slowed down “My Hero” that was surprisingly effective. His music box piano added a hint of melancholy while Grohl sang much of the song with a little restraint, and his own electric guitar turned out to be all the muscle the song needed. Then, after a couple of minutes of that, the rest of the band slammed into the song and the set returned to business as usual.
That moment thrilled the crowd, and it was one of the more successful occasions when the band manufactured dynamics. “Rope” from 2011’s Wasting Light stretched out as the band fell away while Grohl gingerly noodled with a little blues guitar figure, accompanied only by Hawkins, similarly lightening up on drums. Since the noodling didn’t go anywhere, the moment felt like transparently like killing time to set up the exciting finish. Later in the set, Grohl noticed there were only 40 minutes left in the set, but rather than tighten things up to get more songs in, Grohl brought “Monkey Wrench” down, turned down the stage lights, and let the audience illuminate the stage with its phone. Then it raged again, and even “The Best of You” stretched out, as if longer was anything more than longer.
Festivals seem to bring out the ‘70s rock dinosaur in the band. When Foo Fighters were a club and small theater band, their shows were tighter and more intense. Their House of Blues set in 2014 showed that lumbering sprawl isn’t simply what the band does, but what it does when confronted with a pasture full of people. Saturday night, the band made it through 13 songs, whereas most nights on the current arena tour, it gets through 25 or more. I suppose it’s nice that Voodoo set was distinct from previous stops on the tour, but the bloat and blare obscure Foo Fighters’ fundamental strengths. As “Monkey Wrench” (until it stretched out) and “Everlong” showed Saturday night, many of the songs are strong enough to stand up by themselves and don’t need the distracting, overheated, overlong treatment. When Grohl didn’t work as hard, his Everydude vibe was more engaging. He spoke affectionately and spontaneously of New Orleans as he has every time since the band came here as part of the Sonic Highways project. The Voodoo audience clearly loved him and the band back, and that raised one last question. How much more would it have loved the band if it had used its time more efficiently and in less clichéd ways?