w/ Rise Against (USA) & Miss June (NZ)
Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland
Saturday 21 February 2015
I am a huge Foo Fighters fan. I saw them put on three-hour show across two stages at Vector Arena when I was 16 years old. It was (and is likely to remain) the greatest concert I had ever been to. The second time I saw the Foos the crowd collectively triggered an earthquake by jumping up and down to the music.
Since then Dave Grohl and his cohorts have released two great documentaries with fairly weak soundtracks (Sound City and Sonic Highways). This tour is the first in New Zealand to have not sold out in the past decade. Ticket prices have been lowered to less than a third of what they were to entice more people to the show. This all begs the question: have the Foo Fighters lost it, or are they still as brilliant as they ever were?
I can’t be contested that Foo Fighters are one of the best live bands around, but I prefer listening to Rise Against. They were my ‘gateway band’ that first introduced me to punk music.
Rise Against have managed to carve a musical career by blending punk politics, attitudes and ethos with melodic rock sensibilities. In 2008 they signed to a major label and managed to break into the mainstream without compromising their sound and values. I respect them for being one of the few bands played on the radio with messages actually worth taking note of.
Tonight was the fourth time I’d seen Rise Against onstage. I was pleased that almost half their set was older (pre-major label) material. They had large glowing letters spelling out RISE onstage but we all know that it isn’t about how cool the setup looks, it’s about the energy put into the music and delivery. They played with the expected intensity. Guitarist Zach Blair was doing his signature punk jumps all over the stage. The songs “Help Is On The Way” and “Savior” both featured dynamic extended bridges.
Front-man Tim McIlrath invited Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett onstage to join the band. I’m assuming that Shiflett has been friends with Rise Against since his punk days, when he played for No Use For A Name. Together they covered the Jawbreaker song “Kiss The Bottle”
Auckland based opening act Miss June also played well. The drums stood out as sounding especially good. Although at first, they seemed a bit shy and shoe-gazy, after they had warmed up Miss June appeared right at home, delivering a short set of garage punk. Front-woman Annabel Liddell flung herself around the stage channeling Joan Jett. I half expected to hear “Ch, ch, ch, ch, CHERRY BOMB!”
I was confused by the Foo Fighter’s opening guitar line. “Skin and Bones”? Surely they’re not opening with an acoustic song? Actually, no. It was “Something From Nothing”, from the most recent album, Sonic Highways. I swear those two songs have near identical riffs.
“We’re not here to play a two hour set!” Grohl roared “Not two and a quarter, not two and a half! We want to put on the best show we can! I wanna play songs from the first record, the second record, the third record…”
And sure enough, they played for three hours, with a set including material from every album. Every song was a single, save for a few from the new album (that are likely to become singles) so there was a wide enough spread to please fans old and new.
One highlight was “Monkey Wrench”. It started off as usual, but turned into a sprawling psychedelic number come the bridge. The lights slowly dimmed until there was complete darkness, leaving the audience to drink in the sounds without distraction. Another was “These Days”, which grew and grew into a rousing sing along. Songs like these are when the Foo Fighters truly shine, when they turn playing into performing, with musical and visual dynamics.
The moment that they started to lose it was when Grohl walked to the end of the catwalk to play to those at the back of the stadium. This signaled a lull in the set. Those of us at the front couldn’t see anyone playing and the songs were acoustic. The energy had dissipated. People standing around me started checking their phones.
Grohl talked about his promise to play Auckland Town Hall the previous night. Unfortunately that show needed to be cancelled almost as soon as it had been announced. A truck carrying the band’s gear from their previous show in Christchurch had crashed near Taihape on the way to Auckland. “I guess this makes me look like an asshole” he grinned “so I tell you what: if you do something for me I’ll play two shows at the Town Hall next time I come, to make up for it.”
He started strumming “Wheels”. “Last time I made a deal that if you sang along to this song I’d play that Town Hall” he continued, “Well that didn’t work out, so the new deal is if you don’t sing along, then I’ll come back and play those shows.” Of course people still sang along.
“This is the first time I’ve ever told the crowd to shut up, to not sing along. And you still can’t even do it!” Grohl grinned, pretending to chide his audience.
When we first arrived I pointed out to my girlfriend why “the D” (The term used at Big Day Out for the fenced of area at the front, shaped in the shape of a letter D) was split in half.”That’s the catwalk,” I explained, “They run up and down it as they play so that they can get closer to the audience. At the Vector show they actually lowered a second stage from the roof with all the instruments on it so that the band could walk come down the end to play an acoustic set. But obviously that won’t happen tonight, because there is no roof to lower a stage from.”
I was wrong though. Sure, there was no roof to lower a stage from, so they had a secondary stage next to the catwalk that rose up from the ground instead. This was the covers stage, where the band paid homage to bands who had initially inspired them, like Rush, Kiss, and AC/DC. The best was their rendition of the classic Queen/David Bowie collab “Under Pressure”, with drummer Taylor Hawkins taking on Freddie Mercury’s parts and Grohl taking on Bowie’s.
“Under Pressure” revived the show. And if it hadn’t, “All My Life” certainly would have. By the penultimate song, “Best Of You”,Grohl was clearly starting to lose his voice. They finished off with the obligatory “Everlong” (The rock version, not the acoustic version that they have tended to play live for the past several years).
So to answer my question from before: have the Foo Fighters lost it, or are they still as brilliant as they ever were? It was an excellent show. Three hours from one of the world’s best rock bands is hard to fault. But it did feel like they were going through the motions. They played song after song, but that was it. The extra performance aspects I had come to expect were largely absent. The extended jams didn’t feature too often. There were no guitar duels and long drum solos.
If this was the first time I had seen the Foos play I would be raving about how amazing it was. But I have seen them play twice before, and the third time just wasn’t as good.
Foo Fighters played two sold out shows at Wembley Arena in 2008. I think that is when they peaked. They are by no means bad, but it looks to me that they are resting on their laurels rather than continuing to push the envelope. The documentaries they have released are great, but the new music and the Mt Smart performance fail to inspire me.