Blast intern Morgan Lawrence is following the Foo Fighters from Washington, to New York, to Newark and back home to Boston. This is part one of her four-part series.
WASHINGTON — My journey started with a 6 a.m. flight, which meant I got to the airport sometime around 5 in the morning, rubbing sleep from my eyes. I suppose it’s some kind of karmic balance that when I checked in I had a surprise upgrade waiting for me, meaning I got to skip the somehow tremendously long security line at Boston Logan.
One of my favorite parts of travel is getting surprise upgrades. Not because of the material perks, but because it places me with the middle-aged business men oozing drier starch, aftershave and inflated self-importance. I sit among them, band t-shirt and pink-hair and iPod on, drinking my complimentary coffee and orange juice and stowing the portion-sized Sun Chips in my bag for later. I stick out like a sore thumb – a comically pampered sore thumb.
Gratefully, my paranoia about getting lost between the Metro and the venue was unfounded: the Metro stop literally let out two escalator rides below the venue. I walked out onto the street and spotted a “box office” sign immediately, scanning the sidewalk for the crowd that I was sure would be waiting- it was almost 9 a.m., after all. I kept scanning – no one. Within a moment I met two girls who looked about my age, eying me with the same kind of hope mixed with suspicion that, I’m sure, was in my own gaze as well. As we all three walked slowly toward the arena door and met in the middle, I noticed that one of them had a Foo Fighters shirt on; clearly we’re there for the same reason. And, by the looks of it, we were first.
The line time passed more quickly and pleasantly than any line I’ve been in in recent memory. Every person I met was friendly and talkative, and, most importantly, clearly as dedicated to seeing this band as I was. Only two of the first 20 or so people in line were actually from Washington, DC itself, the rest having come from as far as states away. More interesting still was that while this was my first show on the tour, I was in the minority: most saw this show as the end of their own mini-tours, or had at least been to other shows not long ago in the area. As the evening wore on, they helped us fend off people who “mistook” the front of the line for the back (read: trying to take our hard-earned spots). They were even nice enough to let me put my bag in their hotel room for the day when we found out that, despite the fact that surely I wasn’t the only one relying on a backpack to carry all of my necessary possessions, bags were not permitted into the venue.
I will say this, though — regardless of how mild the line, or how organized the lining up process (which, let’s be honest, is never really organized at all; that is purely a relative and optimistic term), the last hour to ninety minutes are the worst. Or, actually, that is not worthy of a relative term – they’re just bad, really. Anxiety heightens, as does paranoia – the free time you had before, accompanied with the appropriate I-have-all-the-time-in-the-world mentality, suddenly evaporates, and even a walk to a trashcan halfway down the block becomes dangerous because what if something happens while you’re gone? It’s totally illogical. It is essentially considered a feat if anything in the music world starts on time. Early is practically unthinkable. But the worry is there just the same.
I suppose this goes to the optimism of the concert-goer: the thought that someone with connections will realize that you’re cold and tired and near-hypothermic, soaked to the bone in a nun costume made of very thin material (uhm…never mind) and that you just want to be closer to seeing your favorite band. And, knowing that, they will wave their magic wand and let you inside.
Yeah. That never happens.
I think the truth is probably closer to one of my favorite quotes, by Mr. Oscar Wilde: The basis of optimism is sheer terror. After x amount of hours in line (where x > anything socially acceptable, often, and generally ? the length of a normal day’s work shift), a spot in line becomes less something you luck into and more something earned. As someone for whom x is always an amount that, in the end, causes passersby to confuse me with a homeless person taking refuge outside a venue, I understand this feeling all too well. Losing a spot in line through someone else’s greed or rudeness is a massive breach of etiquette on their part, and is not taken lightly, but it can sometimes be repaired with enough force. But losing it to your own folly and bad timing is unforgivable, and irreparable to boot. No one wants to risk that, even with something that isn’t a risk at all. In this case, I saw a man run to a bathroom around the corner from the line an hour before doors were set to open, come back to see that nothing at all had happened, and still take it upon himself to jog to a trash can maybe 10 yards down the street. It was as if he was convinced we would sprint through the doors as soon as he was gone, all (at least) 100 of us, leaving him behind as he threw away his paper coffee cup – sucker!
As I said before, though, very little goes earlier than according to plan in the music world, except maybe a really shitty set from an opening band that they decide to pull early. This was no exception, although I do give credit to the staff for, at least, opening the doors damn near close to right on time. It’s November, after all, which means that as the sun went down all extremities began to lose feeling and an unbreakable impatience began to settle over us all like a frost.
This is why, when doors opened, we all shot into the venue like horses out of the gate. Many of us tried to be compliant with security to speed things up but, nervous, fumbled, and only served to make things more difficult.
This is why we ran down he stairs to the wristband table an tapped our feet nervously as our tickets were checked, willing the employees to go as quickly as possible so that someone with a faster ticket scanner could somehow come up from behind and put our hours of waiting to nothing.
This is why we felt kind of stupid when they stopped us in a smaller anteroom before letting us in, as we watched in semi-terror as a larger and larger line formed behind us and up the stairs. We begged the employee guarding said door to let us in gradually, lest a stampede break out and we frontrunners be trampled, so close yet so far.
This is why we ran again when that door was opened, switching to an extremely “brisk walk” under the direction of security but then running again when the free barricade spaces were in view, just the same.
I consider my right side corner barricade spot to be one of the best vantage points in the house, if not the best. It’s positioned so that you are as close as possible while still having head-turned access to the miniature catwalk that is an outcrop of the main stage itself (which Dave Grohl tends to frequent during a number of songs). The same can be said of the corner on the left side, of course, but I’ve been partial to the right (where center isn’t possible) since my Green Day days began. Right side always meant being closer to the bassist, Mike Dirnt – who, in addition to being extremely talented, is unquestionably in the running for World’s Nicest and Most Charming Man. In the Foos’ case, this means access to one Pat Smear, who, as I knew from personal experience at Lollapalooza in August, is also in competition for that award. Or maybe they both should just win it?
First up on the band roster was The Joy Formidable, a group of guitarist/singer, bassist, and a drummer who looks scarily like Russell Brand. Guitarist Ritzy Bryant, wonderfully enthusiastic in the powerful kind of way usually dominated by testosterone-overloaded male performers, took it upon herself to catch people off-guard by making wide-eyed eye contact mid-lyric. Thankfully, I am not so easily phased – I’m of the opinion that such artist-crowd interaction is essential, and I was more than happy to nod my head and clap and grin right back. I love live music in just about all of its forms, and hell if wanting to see the Foos desperately was going to keep me from enjoying myself in the moment. I mean, come on, I’d spent the last 8 hours on a sidewalk. Live music to me sounded like the best “time kill” ever.
And, really, The Joy Formidable are good. They are. And, while I was already partial to their last song, “Whirring”(I know, I know, being partial to their only single is beyond pathetic. But what can you do?) , the end of it all left me turning to the guy behind me and exclaiming “Now that is how you send a set!” Already a track that blends instruments and pedal effects together in a fierce melody, backdrop to the Bryan’s sharp, otherwise bright vocals, this live performance took that technique and ran with it far and fast. The muted roar became a full-on cacophony. Bryan held her guitar up to the face of the amp, resulting in a healthy amount of feedback, while shredding mercilessly on the neck before giving up completely and throwing it (explaining the healthy amount of duct tape that could be seen on the instrument’s front and sides). From there she seized a mallet and smashed away at a rather large gong, the presence on stage of which was finally explained. When the storm finally passed, she and her bandmates simply walked offstage. The flowery “thank-you-we’re-so-glad-to-be-here”s had already been said, leaving them to depart with expressions fixed on their faces as harsh and unforgiving as their song had proven to be. If nothing else, their set felt overwhelmingly genuine – the spectacle didn’t feel like pandering, but more their answer to the unspoken question of “How the hell do we handle arenas this big?!”.
Next up was Social Distorion, who hold an indelible place in rock history and are cited as an influence of innumerable bands as a result. Based on those facts alone, as a hardcore music geek, I would have been excited to see them. As it stands, though, they hold an important place in the formation of my own music taste, as several of their songs were in healthy rotation on my town’s only Alternative (read: good) station during my formative years of musical exploration … which is why I was so disappointed in the way the audio dropped out during the set. On the right side, we were hit full force with the sounds of rhythm guitar, bass, drums, and some lead guitar during solos, but unless you were literally watching singer/guitarist Mike Ness’ mouth move, you would have no idea he was singing at all. No amount of panache – which Mike Ness has plenty of, by the way – can make up for that kind of oversight, which really was a shame.
Above all, ending the set with ‘Ring of Fire” was a wonderful choice, as nothing gets one’s spirits up like a good crowd sing-along. And this crowd was happy to oblige. This, and the knowledge that this set change was the only thing standing between us and the Foo Fighters, led to an unquestionable lightening of the mood between us all. Even the security/bouncers’ slightly-surly commentary of “Two down, one to go” couldn’t bring us down.
And rightfully so. I don’t know what it was about the huge cube-like light fixtures that descended over the stage right before the band walked on, but it left me with a mounting sense of excitement and anticipation of something big that had me saying, simply, “Oh shit!”. And then all too suddenly we were in the thick of it, with Dave screaming my favorite line: “These are my famous last words!”
I’ve always said “What a way to open an album!” about that line, and about that track (“Bridge Burning”, off “Wasting Light”) in general. Now I can safely say “What a way to open a show!” Dave Grohl seemed to think so, too. Going back to my previous music-nomad experience, Billie Joe Armstrong, when excited, will goad the crowd into Simon-says session of “hey oh!”. Apparently, when Dave Grohl is excited, he does the same – but without the whole “using words” thing. Instead he lets out a signature roar that demands we follow suit, filling the stadium with the kind of raw power and energy that I so love about their music, even on the record. And then….
How does one even begin to describe this show? I’ve heard every song they performed innumerable times, but each one was packed with so much life and power that it was impossible not to freak out like they’d just busted out a rarity from ’95.
More importantly, though, watching the Foo Fighters play live, even the hits they’ve played for every show since the tracks were written, one thing becomes clear: these men love playing their instruments, and they are really fucking good at it. As a drummer, and as a fan of drummers, I’m constantly rooting for the drummer to get the spotlight, to really fucking steal the show. And while Dave Grohl clearly loved to dart around the stage like a kid who’s had one too many Pixie Stix, shredding off a new mini-solo or blues digression or even some interlude that sounds oddly like free-form jazz, he couldn’t overshadow Mr. Taylor Hawkins. And he very clearly had no desire too, either. For every time you thought Dave, as the lead, was taking over a song, Taylor would fire back with something truly mind-boggling on the drums that left even Dave standing by admiringly, grinning like a fool. They would segue off after or even during one off their hits and do something completely different, showing off and just enjoying playing with each other, the 19,000 other people in the room be damned.
Their onstage rapport also deserves a mention. Usually, obviously, it’s Dave, who rotates between the effortless charm of a cool guy who just happens to be a kick-your-ass rock musician and the comportment of a teenager after chugging a few Rock Star energy drinks. Case and point: band introductions. “Don’t ever move to DC, Pat – too many people here love you,” he cautioned, after a particularly loud and prolonged round of applause went up for Mr. Smear. He called Taylor “The man who needs no introduction”, but looked mock-offended when he was cut off by the roar of the crowd. Taylor waved in various directions in response, smiling like a 12-year-old kid who just did particularly well in a piano recital but doesn’t quite know why. He proceeded to introduce Dave as “the man who really needs no introduction”, to which Dave cheekily responded “Then why are you giving me one?”
Dave and Chris Shiflett, lead guitarist, at one point got in a full-on shred-off. Dave stood below us all on a constructed runway and Chris still onstage, walking – no, strolling – to and fro, mock- put off by Dave’s show and firing a mini-solo right back at him at every turn. As much as we were celebrating the music that these men had put out and its effect on all of us, it was clear that we were just as much celebrating these men as musicians – and, even, music itself. This became all too clear when Dave stepped up to the microphone and told the kids in the audience, the next generation of musicians, that if they wanted to start a band to close their computers and go buy a guitar instead. Music, real music, was what this was all about.
It made sense, then, that Dave sauntered back out to the raised platform and played “Wheels” – a song he jokingly referred to as being only popular in Germany. In almost the same breath, though, he demanded that we all yell the chorus with him, bribing us with a promised “4-hour show” at DC’s small venue, the 9:30 Club (apparently a theme of Dave’s on this tour).
He further used his vantage point, speaking to thousands of residents of his hometown, as an opportunity to bemoan the desecration of his “beloved Springfield Mall” (comparing its current state to something out of the apocalyptic film “28 Days Later”) but reasoned that he was glad things had changed since he’d lived there – he had changed, too. He noted wryly, though, that he expected every review of the show to immediately bring up the past, to which he gave an emphatic “Fuck 20 years ago!”.
This portion of the show was a totally unique and very cool concert experience, for a number of reasons. For one, as I said before, I’m a sucker for a good group singalong, especially when the “group” is 18,999 of your closest friends. But, second, the majority of the house lights were on, and this meant that nearly every damn person in the stands was visible. And, because Dave was the center of attention (the rest of the band was off on a beer break), the entire pit was now turned to face the back of the arena. From where I stood, 10 feet from the stage, a huge portion of the stands were visible. It was a fishbowl effect, in a way, or a concert setup in reverse. It was what it must feel like (in a limited way, of course) to stand on that stage and see so very many faces singing back at you. It was awesome.
I could easily bitch about Dave’s penchant for choosing 1 of 4, at least, different locations to stand and sing, in only 1 of which I could actually see his face – but I really can’t. First, it’s like he said, addressing the people in the nosebleeds at the very back of the arena – the “shitty seats” – “They’re not so shitty now, are they?”. I really respect the fact that he spreads his presence around as much as he can, even if those people didn’t wait nearly as long as I did to see him up close .Second, I really do think that this, if unintentionally, reinforced why we were there. We weren’t there to gawk at Dave’s handsome face for 2.5 hours, as wonderful (and warranted) as that would be. No, we were there to enjoy the music and to be a community. And I think this – all of us belting out the chorus to “Best of You” and “Times Like These”, just before the rest of the band triumphantly reemerged to bring it home – accomplished that in a way that nothing else could.
Of course, this wasn’t the real encore – not yet. As I said, the rest of the band rejoined the leading man, taking the main stage. Soon after, Dave brought out who else but DC native Bob Mould to join for “Dear Rosemary”, a truly gorgeous version of the track on the record to which he contributed. We also got Story Time with Dave, where he told us about his first broken heart at age 12. To that unfortunate girl who so wounded him he dedicated the next song, Tom Petty’s “Breakdown”, which was actually fantastic – and this is coming from someone who is more than critical of covers, especially those by artists I respect (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, obviously, falling into that category, because I have ears, damn it!).
They wrapped it all up with “Everlong”, which was simply too wonderful for words. The lines “And I wonder/If anything could ever feel this real forever/if anything could ever be this good again” seemed to hit full force as I stood there, feeling nothing but purely, totally happy.
I made sure to get my tour t-shirt as I left, feeling pretty much like nothing could stop me (save the absolute impossibility of getting a cab after a concert in Washington, DC on a Saturday night…but that’s another story). 1 down, 3 to go.