In arena rock, as in politics, we vote for the candidate we’d most enjoy having a beer with. This, invariably, means Dave Grohl. He is enormously likable, this Dave Grohl. Jovial, profane, hirsute. A svelte Bob Seger with prodigious night moves and a fire down below, dispensing that old-time rock ‘n’ roll down on Main Street. He’s like a rock, he’s still the same, he’s got tonight, and so do we. A man worth accomp’nying. With the Foo Fighters, he crafts four-minute cherry bombs of inarticulate angst too cheerful to be all that annoying, your head banging even as your eyes roll. Dunderheaded, oddly interchangable grunge anthems perfectly designed to accompany sports highlights: Done, done, and I’m on to the next one. His screams are melodic, his enthusiasm infectious, his rampant success somewhat mystifying but entirely unobjectionable. A splendid gentleman with whom to have a beer; a man worthy of your vote.
And thank God for that, for these days Dave is running unopposed. There are precious few American rock bands that what’s left of the Music Industry—Grammy noms, glossy magazine covers, remotely respectable sales—will still acknowledge. The Foos and the Chili Peppers—that’s about it. But it’s not so much that Mr. Grohl has wildly succeeded as most of his alt-rock brethren eventually failed. The average American can hum seven Foo Fighters songs and live without all of them; they are healthy and robust and yet Nobody’s Favorite Band.
This was my sense, anyway, before I witnessed an overstuffed Madison Square Garden crowd last Tuesday night roaring the chorus to “Times Like These” a cappella, Grohl grinning maniacally and swinging his leonine locks like a scythe. Let’s all have a beer with Dave. “Goddammit, we’re playing Madison Square fucking Garden tonight!” he exclaims, before conducting a brief poll as to how long we’d like the set to last. Hour and 15? (Booo.) Hour and a half? (Boooo.) Hour and 45? (BOOOOOOO.) Two hours? All right then. (The set does not last two hours.) “I hope everyone took a piss,” Dave notes. (There will be ample time to take a piss during the terrible acoustic section, but we’re still being nice here.) And then it’s off to “Cheer Up Boys (Your Make Up Is Running),” a sardonic swipe at the whiny emo boys he can’t outhype but still mostly outsells.
Forget I mentioned that song. Even if you can’t live without the seven Foo Fighters songs you can hum, the new Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace is mostly negligible, a few raucous choruses weighed down by dependably dopey lyrics (“I’m the face that you’ll have to face” etc.) and awkward stabs at profound elder-statesmen maturity—petty and Petty, camp and Mellencamp. A brief word of praise for “Let It Die,” however. I’ll forgive an arena-rock show anything if it delivers a killer opener; “Let It Die” christens our Garden party with a fine surge of moody loud-quiet-loud adrenaline, vintage alt-rock angst, ominous even in its obviousness, expertly seared meat and perfectly roasted potatoes. Fabulous. Grohl’s is the most endearing of all currently extant rock-star shrieks, just a sweet dude blowing off steam as opposed to feeling sorry for himself. Let’s all have another beer with Dave.
And yes, let’s piss away all that beer during the terrible acoustic section. The Foos are into this lately—stripping it down, dragging it out, adding violin and accordion and (for laffs) triangle to flaunt musical/emotional depth—and you want no part of it. Grohl’s best tunes get by on pure runaway-train raucousness, too fast for love, unleashed with enough breakneck bombast to disguise their slight melodies, their unimaginative structures, their bizarre lyrical mixture of the bland and the cryptic. (“Fingernails are pretty, fingernails are good.”) So when the whole band gambols down the catwalk cutting through the middle of the MSG floor and invades a second acoustic stage out closer to the cheap seats, the show’s momentum stops dead, dead, dead. Hell, I’m all for such populism, but now they’re playing dull, listless jams with backs to fully half the crowd, reducing even stirring highlights like “My Hero” and “Everlong” to plodding dirges—Dave stumbles through the first couple verses of the latter on his own, before the relocated, freshly plugged-in band kicks back in to save him, it, us.
The Foos are at their best when they neither improvise nor innovate; all the solos or even extended riffs they deploy live are laughably bad, from doofy blond Grohl doppelgänger Taylor Hawkins’s Rusted Root–ass drum solo to the totally bitchin’ rockabilly riffs of lead guitarist Chris Shiflett, who looks like a nebbish insurance-claims adjustor and rocks out like a really cool insurance-claims adjuster. (Bassist Nate Mendel is totally fine with me, ’cause he used to be in Sunny Day Real Estate.) Still, the dudes have too many hummable hits to completely flop, and a less ubiquitous tune occasionally strikes you, such as the uncharacteristically mean-spirited “Stacked Actors,” a sneering kick at (probably) Courtney Love that seems slightly unnecessary now that she’s down again, Dave mimicking a shot in the arm just in case we don’t get the point.
We generally look to these dudes for more uplifting sentiments. And Grohl delivers, after horsing around with a video camera backstage, stoking the throng’s bloodthirsty calls for an encore. One song? (Boooo.) Two songs? (Boooo.) Three songs? (BOOOOO.) Fine, four. (The encore is three songs long.) But I’ll forgive an arena-rock show anything if it delivers a killer closer, and “Best of You” is the Foo Fighters’ contribution to the pantheon, the apex of their sports-highlight rock, graced with just a touch more pathos, uncertainty, desperation. Put it this way: Prince could’ve played “When Doves Cry” at last year’s Super Bowl halftime show, and he opted for “Best of You” instead, and this is in fact not entirely illogical. The teeming MSG masses clearly agree, screaming the song’s climactic whoa‘s right along with Dave, an honest-to-god U2 moment, howling along with an eminently likable guy filling a rock-star vacuum that gets bigger and emptier every day, the affable pilot of what may still one day be Everybody’s Favorite Band, even if that’s only because there aren’t any other bands left.