Last month (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 first installment about this adventure.
CODROIPO, Italy –
Coming off three days of exploring Venice, taking the train into Udine can come as a bit of a shock. As the minutes tick by you seem
to be delving deeper and deeper into wine country, farms, the mountains – all nice ways of saying absolutely nowhere. The packed waterways of its neighboring “big city” are just over 90minutes away, but in this case that distance makes all the difference.
I wasn’t in the best of spirits when I stepped off the train at Udine station that day (which just sohappened to be the day before the Foos’ show in Codroipo, one rail stop from Udine proper). For starters, I’d been caught up in a seemingly never-ending sequence of waterbus rides through Venice that took up most of my day, leaving me starving and anxious about making it onto the right train (and getting into Udine before dark, lest I have to find a strange hotel at night alone – not exactly my favorite activity as a solo female traveler).
That said, though, I have to express my gratitude to the staff of this hotel. The woman at the front desk when I checked in was exceedingly friendly (speaking excellent English) and helped me figure out a bus route for the next morning, and made sure the next day to help me find the station (which was located literally in the hotel’s backyard, to my relief). She was, quite simply, very kind. Sometimes that’s the most striking thing you can encounter when in a strange place, surrounded by strange people who for the most part do not speak your language.
I’ll digress here to elaborate on that, because it would not nearly do my trip to Italy justice if I simply glossed over this with a generalization. Maybe it was because I was nervous as all hell about traveling by myself, with my plans incomplete, but I was completely blown away by the kindness and friendliness that I was shown by both fellow travelers and native Italians alike. The hostel I’d stayed in in Venice was by no means top-notch (then again I’ll ask what anyone expects from around $30 US a night) but being the only readily affordable hostel in Venice it attracted no shortage of young people making their way through Europe or the entire world, as the case may be.
Without fail, stopping to have a conversation with any one or a group of them turned out to be a fantastic decision. Nightlife is fine for some, but I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end my hot, exhausting days of sightseeing than sitting on the edge of the canal outside our hostel, drinking $3 wine, and starting every conversation by simply asking where someone was from, where they’d been, and where they were going. The travel stories that went back and forth during these times left me feeling that my travels were kid stuff at best – but maybe I was getting somewhere.
This sense of welcome wasn’t limited to those coming in from other countries, of course. Minutes after stepping off the plane, three different airport employees showed me nothing but patience and courtesy when I asked the best route to get to my hostel. The bus driver who took me from Udine to Villa Manin was chatty and pleasant, asking me about myself as much as possible in his limited English. In line for Foo Fighters and in the pit between sets, I met no less than five people who were more than willing to converse with me (again, in English, to their credit). That can be immensely impotant during what can otherwise be a tedious, tense, and quite possibly miserable weather-wise, experience.
Of course it helped that we had in common a love of one of my favorite bands, but it was more than that. I could have easily spent the entire day staring at my phone and sat, twiddling my thumbs, between bands, but I didn’t have to do that at all. Instead I got to have interesting conversations with some pretty cool people, and to me that’s worth a lot.
Still, I firmly believe that concerts bring out not necessarily the worst, but the most primitive of human behaviors. Where else do you purposely shove, elbow, and turn-and-glare at people you’ve never set eyes on in your life without an ounce of remorse? Where else do you practically beg for a small mouthful of bottled water a security guard holds up to your face, not caring at all if you get drenched in the process? It’s a completely unique universe where selfishness is survival, so to speak.
I think that self-centeredness, a strange kind of self-preservation mixed with entitlement and magnified by mob mentality, is what can bring pre-concert situations to a head so quickly and forcefully. Unfortunately, thanks to the aforementioned cocktail of human nastiness, these situations require ample supervision. Simply put, the less organized it is, the worse it’s going to be, to an exponential degree.
I touched on this when I wrote about seeing the Foos in Newark, where a kind of pen served as the first part of the line and invited passersby to try cutting in. That, of course, led to an extremely tense atmosphere and no shortage of arguments.
This was an entirely different animal, though. Villa Manin, where the concert was held, is a sprawling estate out in the Italian countryside. The line was set up on the “drive”, so to speak, outside the gates to the Villa’s massive lawn. The first problem was obvious: while there were barricades set up for processing tickets, marking where the line was to start, there were none to contain the line itself.
Sometimes, when a line spreads down a sidewalk or something of the sort, this isn’t an issue. In this case, when the drive is flanked on the left by a sidewalk and on the right by a decent-sized park, problems are brewing from the start.
I probably should have sensed this more acutely when I first arrived and noticed that the line was getting wider rather than longer – after about two hours it hadn’t spread at all down the drive, but instead to my left and, as the sun began to grow hotter,onto the shaded grass to my right. As the day wore on, this only got worse.
As I’ve also discussed before, an odd mentality exists about gates at shows and when they’re set to open. Even if every person in that line knows when that time is, as early as four hours beforehand you’ll suddenly find everyone standing up, crowding together, and moving forward for no reason at all. When you’re standing packed together under the hot Italian sun with nothing ahead of you but more hours in which you’re made to stand that way, this does not immediately seem ideal.
As that sun grew only hotter, more and more people took refuge in that aforementioned park. This came to a very real head during this crowd-shuffle-stand routine, when people who had been lounging in the shade decided that they wanted to be in the front now, and that they could cut the rest of us. Some people took initiative and tried to tell off the stragglers, but some still lingered. This rising tension and territoriality was how I ended up sitting under my umbrella on the asphalt, packed amongst the feet of far more people than had been there that morning, simply waiting for something to happen. That didn’t take long, either.
I’m still not sure how this happened. I’ve mentioned before that the last hour or so of waiting for doors is the absolute worst, because in many ways it’s a make-or-break scenario for getting your spot. Apparently that sentiment was a shared one, because an hour and 15 minutes before doors there came a massive movement toward the front of the line. It got so packed that we could no longer sit or hold umbrellas, which meant that we were standing far too close to one another, slightly wedging in to get what leverage we could toward the front, in the bright sun. With 45 minutes still to go, someone said something or saw something or just moved the wrong way and suddenly we were in a massive crush. It was like being hopelessly stuck in the middle of the pit, without any hope of respite from people moving around. It was definitely not the highlight of my day.
Finally, thankfully, there was the rush forward and through the gates. Somehow, as I only realized
once it happened, I made it into the second major group of people let through, so I could at the very least move around and feel the
breeze again. As the Gaslight Anthem’s sound check ended we were finally let in, and after a mad dash to the stage (the right side still being my favorite and inexplicably less crowded) I wound up one off the barricade. People seemed to relax, at long last, sitting on the lawn and buying drinks or sandwiches from venders who walked gingerly around their legs.
First up was The Gaslight Anthem, who I’ve loved since I was about 16 years old but had, at this point, never seen live. They’re apparently not quite famous in Italy, though, because as the set started and my excitement mounted, I was quite literally the only one dancing and jumping and singing along. I could have cared less, though.
Front man Brian Fallon paused between songs only to joke with the crowd a bit – “Who’s excited to see Foo Fighters? Who likes Dave Grohl? That’s like asking ‘Do you like pizza,'” he said with a laugh.
They opened with “Great Expectations”, from their first major release “The ’59 Sound” and continued with a set list that balanced their established catalogue with their most recent “’45” (including, of course, the single and title track from that record). The band was remarkably solid, and Fallon proved himself to be a very skilled live vocalist -as some people around me in the pit remarked to me after the set – and I couldn’t have been happier.
Next up was Bob Mould, who is also, apparently, not a huge celebrity in Italy (at least so far as the demographic in the front row at a Foo Fighters show is concerned). I’d seen him perform as a guest at three of the four Foo Fighters shows I’d seen in the northeastern US last year, so I knew this meant we’d get a live rendition of the Foos’ “Dear Rosemary” and, quite possibly, Tom Petty’s “Breakdown”, which had always been great encore additions in the US.
I knew Mould wasn’t a man of many words when he was up on stage with Dave and company, but it turned out that his set was Clapton-esque in that way as well – he segued without pause between the first five shows or so, and only then to say a quick “Hi” before rolling on again. He did make a point of saying that he’d been in Italy 20 years before, saying simply, if with some surprise, “We’re all still here”. His set was almost completely packed with music from beginning to end, many of which were headbang-and-dance ready (which Mould himself did across the stage, to his immense credit).
After another hour or so of sitting and waiting, of course, it was the big event: Foo Fighters
walked out on stage. Whoever does lighting at Villa Manin should get a bonus today, because from my vantage point, as Dave Grohl and his band mates walked toward the edge of the stage, they were completely illuminated; in the camera lenses of those around me I saw that they were but silhouettes against a brilliant backdrop. Not a bad way to make a first impression.
Things were different from the start. They opened with “White Limo”, Dave apparently having sat down some time between Bamboozle and the present and (mostly) learned the lyrics to the song. Then was the international favorite “All My Life”, which is when things really went nuts. As I’ve mentioned before, Foo Fighters shows in America (festivals aside, naturally) are unique in my experience in that there seems to be an unwritten rule against pushing, moshing, or even crowd surfing for the most part. Once you’re in your spot, in those situations, you’re in it for good. Without that, though, there are absolutely zero guarantees.
I’ve never seen a better example of that than I did at this show, within the first few minutes. Most of the time, with some exceptions, getting a spot on the barricade at a show means you’re staying there for the majority of the show – try to pry someone off the barricade who doesn’t want to move, and has the weight of everyone in the venue pushing up against them. I suppose I’d never considered what would happen if, however, someone was on barricade who didn’t really understand how to defend themselves at a show, or didn’t really care to. There’s a certain math and balance to these things: only so many sets of shoulders can fit side by side, and if that’s breached then something’s gotta give. Unfortunately for me, what gave was the person directly in front of me, which sent me one more person back from the barricade and into the rolling sea of people. I was shoved, in a show of irony, almost into my favorite right hand corner spot off the catwalk, spare the disproportionate number of huge, muscular guys who thought it was okay to wrestle each other over it.
Thus I found myself in a strong-guy sandwich for most of the show, which, although I lost my line of sight a few times and range of motion in my arms for even more of it, was actually not all that bad. For once they hadn’t set a mic stand up on the end of the catwalk, which meant that Dave was relegated to almost directly front of me for most of the show.
And the set list – oh, the set list.
It’s a unique kind of jealousy when you’re sitting in one country and reading about the amazing set list that one of your favorite bands played in another. With Foo Fighters in particular, that was kind of the story of my relationship with this band: it seemed that one of my favorite songs, “Generator” was something they frequently played overseas, but not so much in America. Getting “Hey, Johnny Park!” from their sophomore album “The Colour and the Shape”, and “Big Me” from their first, at Bamboozle Festival had been a huge deal for me, and for a lot of fans that was kind of old news. When I’d sat planning the trip to Japan this winter (to follow the Foo tour there that ultimately never came to be), I admit that a recurring thought was that maybe, probably, they would put that song on the set list. In the US, simply put, they generally stuck to the same set list, but it seemed that outside the boundaries of their own country more “deep cuts” were fair game. Little did I know.
Okay, so I wasn’t totally surprised when they played “Generator”, but I still went crazy – as I did when they announced that they’d be playing “New Way Home” and “Aurora”, from their second and third albums respectively. “New Way Home” features a roaring crescendo and then a screaming buildup to end it, and “Aurora” finishes with a massive, soaring, dreamy instrumental -both of which you can’t help but imagine bursting through a stadium. As the years pass, that gets less and less likely, so I feel lucky as hell for getting to hear them. They played them almost nonchalantly but insanely well, and although I think many in the crowd were unfamiliar with them, toward the front I definitely wasn’t alone. The lights popped and flickered, the spotlights swooped down and around the band, and as they launched into a gorgeous, prolonged ending to “Aurora” it was impossible to escape the feeling that you were witnessing something really special.
Even the encore was a change-up. At stadium shows Dave had, in my experience, taken a good chunk of the encore as a solo portion, breaking out his acoustic guitar for “Best of You”, “Wheels,” and the first half of “Times Like These” before the band swept back in. This time, though, the band came out immediately for the encore and roared into a full, loud, perfectly angsty “Best of You”. The crowd reaction was a powerful one, which I definitely understood: it’s hard not to be impressed when a stadium full of people chants the “ooooh”, a capella, in unison as the band looks on. Sure, the song is a “hit”, so to speak, but not because it’s particularly catchy or can be used to sell a car. It really speaks to people, especially fans, on a personal level, and every time I see it performed I’m reminded of that.
And then, of course, it was “Everlong” to close the show, which only ever augments the emotionality of everything. Still, even as the last chords rang out, the band rushed offstage, and the roar of the audience finally died down, I could at least take solace in the fact that Prague was mere days away, with the promise of one more stadium gig. After that, of course, was a run of festivals, taking me into more of Europe than I’d seen up to this point in my life.
In short, drenched and exhausted and with ringing ears, I was feeling pretty damn good. After all, this was just the beginning.