In August 2012 I followed Foo Fighters on their European summer tour. This took me to Codroipo, Italy; Prague, Czech Republic; Hasselt, Belgium; Belfast, Northern Ireland; and finally Leeds, England. This is the third installment about this adventure.
Getting into Belfast for Tennent’s Vital was nerve-wracking, beyond what I had expected. Major-name hotels being booked up for a festival, or even a big concert, doesn’t strike me as anything unusual; chatting with the tourism desk attendant at the Belfast airport and finding out that there are almost no rooms available in Belfast at all, hotel or B&B or hostel, is a different story. The owner of my particular lodging informed me that virtually everyone staying in Belfast was there for the same reason I was (Tennent’s Vital Festival, taking place around 10 minutes away by train the next day). Walking there from the main bus station and passing innumerable people my age, nearly all wearing band t-shirts and sporting dyed hair and piercings, pretty much confirmed that.
I’ve got a front-row record that I’m pretty proud of, and I’m willing to do what it takes to keep it. Still, that doesn’t mean I can’t be a bit intimidated when a city full of people seems set on doing the exact same thing.
That would be why, backpack full of peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches, I set out at 7 a.m. the next morning to catch the train. Despite warnings on the Tennent’s Vital website not to queue (that’s “line up” for everyone else – I’ve been in Europe for a while) until just before doors, knowing just how many people were out there for this kind of put that out of my mind.
This turned out to be a really, really good call.
Considering we were lined up on literally the side of a very busy street, with two-way traffic going at high speed mere feet from us, the number of people who were in line within a few hours of my own arrival was impressive (enough to move us onto the grounds and into barricades, apparently). The one thing that Pukkelpop had perhaps not prepared me well for was the contingent of fans who, like myself, are determined enough to show up early and camp out at the main stage barricade all day come hell or high water. For that show, showing up half an hour before doors was ample time; for this, with 7 hours to go I was lucky to get the spot in line I did.
Then, of course, there was talk of rain. For that I was admittedly unprepared – the concert website warned that umbrellas would be confiscated, and despite my best efforts I hadn’t been able to find a rain coat around where I was staying. In case of emergency I’d packed a (big, baggy, and very yellow) poncho, thinking that I’d at least have something if worst came to worst.
And indeed it did get worse: as we sat leisurely within the barricades, with hours still to go before that anxious period right before doors, threatening clouds rolled in overhead and, within minutes, down came the rain. Soon one and all were huddled under umbrellas, raincoats that had seemed to materialize from nowhere, hooded sweatshirts, and, in my case, a bright yellow poncho. In a show of what can only be described as mockery, the rain would come down in droves, burn off into muggy sunshine, and go right back again within a couple of hours. In a dignity-boosting movie, photographers taking shelter under the security tents inside the gates threw jackets over their heads at intervals to take photos of the sodden masses before retreating again.
Still, even when the rain finally let up as we huddled together at the gates, the relief was far from palpable. Although I hadn’t paid much attention to it myself, typed on the tickets was the all-caps warning “over 16s only” in an effort to prevent underage drinking in the pit. With only half an hour before doors, security came around and informed us that not only would those 16 and under be refused entry without a 25-or-over chaperone to sign them in, but those who even looked 16 or under would be ID’d – or refused entry if they didn’t have a license on them. Within minutes, nearly everyone near me on the barricade was panicked. Those who were 16 found themselves searching for anyone to sign them in, or leaving the pit altogether before being tossed out. Soon nearly half of the crowd around me was completely different from that which had been there the entire day. As someone who had been lining up for just as long, I can only imagine how disappointing that was.
It was equally disappointing, I’m sure, for those people around me who were not given a green-and-pink striped “pit” wristband. When everyone was standing, pushing forward in disorder on the entrance gates, security decided that this would be the time to hand out the wristbands that allowed you into the pit area in front of the stage. They started with those of us in front along the barrier, passed some to the row or rows behind us, and then made the odd decision to proceed to the back of the queue and hand some out from there. Essentially that meant that the people two “rows” or so behind me, who had been there since some time that morning, would not be getting in the pit, but some people who had shown up only recently would.
Looking back, that probably had something to do with how relatively simple it was for my friends and myself, who were not the first in line or through the gates or through security, to get my coveted right-hand-corner-barricade spot in front of the stage. Warnings from an unseen employee, via microphone, for the “girl in the yellow shirt” to “slow down” were all but drowned out by our victory cheers as we made it to our spots. All that was left was the wait.
Word to the wise: trying to watch a band (in this case Trucker Diabolo) perform under the hood of a poncho in the pouring rain is not an easy thing to do, no matter how much fun their rendition of “Proud Mary” is. I count the crowd that day, myself included, as extremely lucky that when the rain finally ended after their set, it did, in fact, end – and I was able to actually take advantage of my peripheral vision as the night went on.
The Black Keys were once again slated to open for the Foos, which was nothing short of awesome. Looking forward to the opening band’s performance and the headliner’s is a stroke of serious luck as far as concert-going goes, and with every show I began to appreciate The Black Keys as a live band all the more. They motivate the crowd to dance, jump, sing and have fun without all of the aggression that so often comes with it – and they do it purely through the power of their music. There are no urgent demands for the people in the cheap seats to “stand the fuck up!”, no cries for a circle pit or crowd surfers. They power through their set and have as much fun doing it as the audience does listening to it, and that’s enough. Even though my last experience with them at Leeds was more than slightly ruined (as I’ll get to later) and was nothing short of miserable, overall seeing them on my Foo tour felt like a privilege, and I fully intend to see them headline a show some time in the future.
Foo Fighters entered to thunderous applause, launching into their festival set list with a “White Limo” opener and “All My Life” following. Dave screamed hello and lamented how long it had been since he had been in Belfast (roughly 20 years).
“So sorry it took so long,” he said later in the show. “I promise it won’t take so long for us to come back again.”
The band roared through, for all intents and purposes, their usual set list (with the noted addition of the oft-ignored “Bridge Burning,” a personal favorite), but that’s not to say that this was “business as usual”.
The first incident that comes to mind was right before “Breakout”. Dave usually dedicates this song to all of the “old Foo Fighters fans” in the audience, changing the opening lyrics to something like “One of these days I’ll chase your old, crusty, fuckin’ forty-five-year-old ass down.” This time, however, he caught sight of a girl a few rows back in the crowd, sitting on her friend’s shoulders…talking on her cell phone.
“Are you on your fuckin’ cell phone right now?!” he said, mock-condescendingly, as the crowd began booing on cue. “Call your fuckin’ friend back,” he ordered. “Here’s what I have to say to your fuckin’ friend…”
Dedicating the song, once again, to all of the “old Foo Fighters fans” of Belfast, he changed up the lyrics yet again: “One of these days I’ll chase your fuckin’ 16-year-old cell phone ass down!” (Video below – worth watching the first minute or so, as there’s nothing quite like an onstage rant by Mr. Dave Grohl).
Later on in the show, as some of my Foo friends had predicted, the front man announced that we had more reason to celebrate than the band’s first appearance in the city: we all owed Gus, their tour manager, birthday wishes. To that end they brought the less-than-enthused birthday boy out front and center, presenting him with a cake (complete with lit candles) and leading the crowd in a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday”. “I love you to death,” Dave declared. “I love you so much that I’m not going to put that cake in your face!”
Interestingly enough, though, the most notable part of this show was probably something that came to light after the band walked off, the crowd dispersed, and everyone, at long last, made it back home (“at long last”, of course, referring to the line for the train that stretched for blocks). Starting with local news and spreading out, as it does, from there, there was this: the story that the relatively residential town of Belfast had been kept awake by those Foo Fighters hooligans and their damn loud music.
While the article itself was hilarious enough, that wasn’t even the best part: the picture that many online publications, including the BBC, had chose to run with the story was none other than one of me and my friends completely losing our minds (see photo at the top). I guess that’s only fair, as I know for a fact we did our fair share to contribute to that “noise level”.
Still, even as I walked away with the weightlessness of a great concert experience and the new Foo friends I’d shared it with, I was still very much aware of one thing: Leeds was on the horizon. This would be the biggest show I’d yet attempted, and failure (read: not getting front row) was not an option: this was my last one. I was excited, I was nervous, I was looking forward to it almost as much as I dreaded it.
I had absolutely no idea what I was in for.