Foo Fighters w/Social Distortion, The Joy Formidable
Madison Square Garden
Sunday, November 13
Better than: Some band with only two guitar players playing for only two hours.
Dave Grohl is often called the nicest guy in rock. Don’t think he doesn’t use this to get away with murder. During their performance at Madison Square Garden last night General Grohl led his Foo Fighters through “Stacked Actors,” one of the deep cuts fans point to whenever detractors complain about “Learn To Fly.” It’s a great song. It has pointed lyrics, an insistent groove and just enough pop-polish to make the slash and burn riffs and throat shredding go down easy. It is not a song that benefits a great deal from instrumental vamping. But that didn’t stop Grohl from running across the MSG floor to a second stage in the middle of the arena and then indulging in an extended back and forth solo off with lead guitarist Chris Shiflett. And it just kept going.
Grohl has his detractors, but he’s emerged as one of the safest bets in modern rock because he’s an incredibly likable dude who knows how to craft a three-to-four-minute song that has monster hooks and an energy that never sounds phoned in. It’s not the most adventurous thing around (though the dude has a few hands-down classics; just try to fuck with “My Hero”), but if that’s the hamburger you want then Grohl is happy to serve it to you. So it’s puzzling that he seemed to think that the one thing his tightly wound songs needed was an extended drum buildup during the bridge, or an extended guitar solo after the chorus, or a part where he brought it down for a minute so he could urge the crowd to clap harder.
If the Foo Fighters did insist on indulging themselves, it would have been nice if they had done so by swapping overplayed radio staples like “Learn To Fly” for fan favorites like “Hey, Johnny Park!,” or “Wattershed.” But it’s hard to stay mad at the guy. He just looks so happy to be there, he’s got great stage presence (“how many people are seeing us for the first time? Awesome. We use to suck and now we shred every night”) and he often used his rock-star indulgences for good. None of the Foo Fighters’ compositions are particularly complicated enough to call out for three guitar players. As such, guitarist Pat Smear was seemingly called back into the band because Grohl and the audience love having him and his goofy faces around, and three guitar players just makes everything louder and more epic, which is appropriate for a set that ran close to three hours and included most of their very good new album Wasting Light. During the encore he brought out Bob Mould, “a man who changed my life,” to reprise his guest appearance on “Dear Rosemary,” and the look of glee and bewilderment on Mould’s face when he stepped on to the stage (“this is the Garden, Bob!”) was a joy to behold. (In a better alternative dimension, Husker Du headlined the Garden shortly after “Makes No Sense At All” became a number one hit.) Mould and the Foos then segued from “Rosemary” to a cover of Tom Petty’s “Breakdown,” which seemed almost too appropriate, as the sweet spot between the passionate hardcore of Husker Du and reliable pop-rock classicism of Tom Petty is a sweet spot that has served Grohl very well.
After Mould’s guest spot, the band invited Joan Jett onstage to burn through “Bad Reputation,” for possibly no other reason than who’s going to tell them they can’t. They ended their set about ten minutes after midnight (which no doubt thrilled the Garden’s management) with “Everlong,” the same song they’ll be ending their set with for the rest of their career, the best song Grohl ever wrote and, real talk, one of the five best songs he’s ever been involved with. (You heard me.) Grohl was smart enough to never try to replicate the mix wistful longing, post-punk staccato riffing, dream-pop touched melody and arena-sized sing-a-long he captured on that one. He was also smart enough to limit the “improvements” to a little extra jamming on the outro.
One of the cool things about being one of the last men standing in the arena alt-rock game is that you can bring whoever you want on tour. For Grohl, that meant Social Distortion, the long-running So-Cal punk band whose single a 13-year-old Grohl ordered from a fanzine. Time has toned down their frenzy a bit, but these warhorses still get it done, and decades of being Mike Ness have only made Mike Ness’s voice and songs like “Bad Luck” that much more world weary and pleasingly cracked. I’m trying to think of phrases beyond “sturdy” or “workman like” when describing their performance; suffice to say this is a band whose biggest indulgence all night was taking a minute to explain that they love all kinds of music, which is why they covered “Ring Of Fire,” even though some people got mad at them about it. Opening the night was The Joy Formidable, whom Grohl accurately described as a “great rock ‘n’ roll band” and who already have a better handle on extended instrumental outburst that the Foos; the end of “Whirring” is one of the best things about this entire year. Guitarist Ritzy Bryan is a straight beast of a bandleader, soloing hard enough to create a space-time vortex where the gauzy ’80s college rock of Throwing Muses and Siouxsie and the Banshees collapses in on Hendrix, Page and the best of the rest of lighter-ready classic rock radio. If these dudes aren’t headlining Lollapalooza in four years then I simply don’t know what people want from music anymore.
Critical bias: This close to telling the story about the sentimental attachment I have to “Everlong” and “what that song means to me.”
Overheard: “You’re not wearing your leather jacket!” “It was too hot outside for it.” Me to longtime Rolling Stone writer David Fricke when I realized we were sitting next to each other. He bopped along through the entire set, by the way.
Random notebook dump: Ritzy shredded so hard I came dangerously close to talking myself back into the “why are all great young guitar players women?” think piece that I’d previously realized was a well-meaning bad idea.