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.
HASSELT, Belgium –
I’m not sure if there’s a way to really prepare for sitting in 90 degree heat for over 10 hours, fighting crowds and dehydration and sunburn to be front row for one of your favorite bands, but I’m sure in this case I could have done a little better.
This was Pukkelpop: day three of the three-day festival in Hasselt, Belgium that boasts a pretty respectable lineup of rock and alternative acts on its main stage every year. The main stage was where I was headed, after all: Foo Fighters were scheduled to play at 10 p.m., and at 10:30 a.m. I was dutifully outside the festival gates waiting for the charge.
Looking back now at everything that transpired later, I should count myself extremely lucky that this plan actually worked: I got off the train from Leuven with an already sizeable crowd of festival-goers, got my wristband, and sat down in front of one of the many gates that were set to open at 11 a.m. People were already gathered around, so to speak, but no one really seemed to care all that much about getting in first – myself excluded, of course, as well as the people I met up with.
We had one plan of action in mind: get through that gate and run like hell. And, spare the holdup from bag checks, that’s exactly what happened (cries of “Run, bitch, run!” followed me as I sped through the entrance).
Despite the fact that the run was much farther than anticipated, somehow it worked: I found myself next to my friends on barricade. It was a huge relief, sure, but I think we all knew that this wasn’t even half the battle.
The first few sets were easy, and even fun: Balthazar, an alternative-indie-pop band from Belgium, opened to much local enthusiasm. The crowd danced and sang in the lingering shade from the stage in a way that made you wish it would stay that way all day.
Next up was The Joy Formidable, who had opened for Foo Fighters for many of their US dates (including every one that I’d seen). They kept much of the same set list as those gigs with a few updates for their new material. “Cradle” and “Whirring”, the latter still the set closer, remain standout tracks, bursts of noise and energy that really showcase the talent of the already spotlight-stealing drummer, Matt Thomas.
The Cribs were next, bringing more of a sneering, bratty, Brit-punk take on rock n’ roll to their personas and performance. The standout moment of the set was definitely when, within the first few songs, the lead singer/guitarist Ryan Jarman had apparently bitten his lip so hard that blood ran down the better part of his face, and he made no effort to wipe it off.
All Time Low, hailing from my homeland, took the stage next. For just those 45 minutes I’m sure that the main stage featured a completely disproportionate number of women, people under 20, and women under 20 – something that the band members seemed to acknowledge when they collectively complimented the breasts of the people of Hasselt. They invited the crowd to a massive orgy by the Sbarro stand – “Boom, you’re pregnant!” lead singer Alex Gaskarth declared – between demands that the crowd jump, crowd surf, and sing as loud as possible. Whatever your music taste, they were definitely solid entertainment for the whole of their short set, if demanding of a bit more energy than a lot of us could muster in the hot sun.
The Shins followed, and just so happened to open with my favorite of their songs, “Caring is Creepy”. It was definitely a gear shift from the hyperactive teenage vibe that All Time Low projected, but they breezed through a set list comprised mostly of hits from their entire catalogue – “Kissing the Lipless”, “Phantom Limb”, “Sleeping Lessons” and, of course, the “Garden State”-famed “New Slang”. Inviting the crowd to sing along at points and simply seeming to enjoy the performance themselves, it seemed an appropriate halfway point for the day – perhaps best exemplified by the fact that the end of their set was the first time that the chant “One more tune! One more tune!” went up from the crowd that afternoon.
The Hives entered next, and I’ll say that they are perhaps one of the most, if not the most, relentlessly dynamic live acts I have ever seen. Lead singer Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist entered in a three-piece suit and top hat despite the sweltering heat (which he informed us was even worse under the stage lights). Still, stopping only to douse himself with water that any audience member had left unattended, he barely stopped for a moment during their set, darting back and forth across the stage and down along the barricade below. The crowd had grown to almost full main-stage-headliner size at this point (judging by the noise and the lead singer’s commentary – I couldn’t see anyone beyond a few heads behind me), resulting in louder cheers, more demands to cheer from the band members, and simply more mob mentality enthusiasm. As far as “warm up” acts go, I’m not sure you can do better than The Hives, who could probably command any crowd they stepped in front of, and wouldn’t stop until they did.
The Black Keys were the last of the non-headliner warmups, and proved themselves to be more than worthy of such a slot. Not much for banter at the microphone or chatting with the crowd (drummer Patrick Carney didn’t say one word from behind the drum kit), they filled their set almost completely with music, rolling through their singles (“Your Touch”) a few deep cuts (“I Got Mine”), and a lot of material from their latest record “El Camino” (“Little Black Submarines”, “Dead and Gone”, “Nova Baby”, and, of course, “Lonely Boy”). Their “light show” of sorts, vertical rigs that look like giant lamps stacked one on top of the other that illuminated at intervals, gave the set a kind of old-fashioned, artful touch – sort of how the band itself can be distinguished from their peers. Honestly they were a pleasure to watch from start to finish, and provided the perfect mix of dancing, jumping, clapping, and singing (really, the chorus for “Lonely Boy” is about as crowd-sing-along ready as you can get) to get the crowd in a the perfect mood for a headlining set.
That’s right: only one set change left to go.
The weather had finally started to cool, and people had seemed to finally lose their front-of-the-pit anxieties, by the time the techs wrapped up their work and the pre-show playlist faded out (the two girls to my left had, by this point, been muscled out of their place by a man twice their size, but I digress). Once again, I’ll express my appreciation for the vast majority of crowds at Foo Fighters shows.
I cut my concert-going teeth, so to speak, in pits that were harsh and unforgiving – for me it was normal to be shoved for 30 minutes before the band even took the stage, to have to keep your arms just so to keep your spot, to have to push back every so often to be able to breathe on the barricade. My first Foo Fighters show (and the second, and the third…) came as a huge surprise in that respect. I didn’t have to fight to keep my place, I could jump and dance as much as I wanted, and people seemed to be there simply to have a good time. That’s one reason that I really felt drawn to seeing the band live, and can continue to do so as often as I do (because come on, pit bruises need time to heal, after all).
Still, festivals are always a completely different animal, in my experience. My first Foo Fighters show had been the third day of Lollapalooza, where even the pouring rain couldn’t stop a massive crowd from pushing toward the front for the entire two-hour set. Being pushed and pulled, jolted forward and pinned against the person in front of me – that’s the kind of thing I’d experienced.
Dealing with a crowd only partially comprised of actual Foo Fighters fans, that may or may not include a fair percentage of intoxicated people, and that is simply huge, that’s the kind of thing you come to expect. I’m happy to say that with Pukkelpop I was pleasantly surprised.
Despite having to hold on to the barricade to keep the muscle man to my left from pushing me off, too, I was still able to have as much fun on the barricade as I damn well pleased, which was just about the best thing I could ask for. Any fatigue of the day completely dissipated as my friends and I made complete fools of ourselves, as per usual. It was a nice validation of sorts, too – we had survived the wait and everything that came with it, and this was the payoff.
Being in the front, though, I was privileged to experience something completely unique. The co-founder of the Belgian/Dutch Foo Fighters fan club was in attendance at the show, and was trying to organize a flash mob tribute to the victims of the previous year’s Pukkelpop main stage collapse. She passed out heart-shaped (deflated) balloons with instructions to, during a certain lyric of the Foo Fighters song “These Days” they would, once blown up, be tossed in the air.
At first I was, admittedly, skeptical. In Italy the Italian fan club had passed out paper airplanes to be tossed out during the song “Learn to Fly”, but we were all so completely drenched by water thrown on us by the venue management that only a handful of wadded-up papers ever made it to the stage. I wasn’t sure this would end up much better. I was so wrong.
To start with, “These Days” is always introduced with Dave playing the opening riff and talking to the crowd about something relevant and important to him – an appropriate accompaniment to what he describes as his favorite song he’s ever written, containing some of his most meaningful lyrics. As the riff started, Dave began with the perfect segue, dedicating the song to the previous year’s storm victims and telling the story of how the band first heard news of the incident.
As the song began (Dave’s voice cracking with emotion), I looked around: on all sides of me, in the front section of the pit, people were silently holding up their heart-shaped balloons, waiting quietly for the cue (which wasn’t even a part of the plan). A respectful, thoughtful silence fell over the massive crowd, with only quiet and earnest applause breaking out at intervals. It just felt important, in a way. “This is for all the people who couldn’t be here tonight,” Dave said before launching into the lyrics, and it really felt like it was.
And then, of course, the chorus came in, and right on cue the balloons were thrown. The band never verbally acknowledged the effort, but as a member of the audience I can say that it was a seriously cool, definitely moving tribute that had gone off as well as anyone could have hoped. As lucky as I felt to be at Pukkelpop at all, I felt all the more privileged to be part of something so meaningful in the process. (To get the full effect, watch the first 4-5 minutes of the video below).
Generally speaking, otherwise, everything went as planned. The band generally stuck to their festival set list, as it were: once again they opened with “White Limo” and segued into “All My Life”, rolling through a “greatest hits” sequence (“The Pretender”, “Best of You”, etc.) with space for songs from “Wasting Light” (“Arlandria”, “Walk”). With the obvious exception of the aforementioned “These Days”, it was actually toward the end of the show that things got interesting.
First of all, this show saw the return of a running “Wasting Light” tour gag: after the encore, a live night-vision feed of Dave and Taylor hamming it up backstage would play on the jumbo tron. Tinged in green, the two fought it out over how many songs the band would play once they got back. For the stadium tour, this had been anywhere up to 10 songs – at least another hour of music once they came back to the stage. Glancing at the clock that we’d been staring at all day, counting the hours, it seemed that this show would be similar: there was an hour left, ample time for several more songs before the band made an “Everlong” exit.
It was strange, then, to see both members stop at “three”. The crowd went crazy, of course, just to have them back to play more at all – and besides, they could just be trying to wrap the schtick up quickly. Maybe three was just an estimate?
Those hopes were all but dashed when Dave returned, solo, to the spotlight. As usual he would start “Times Like These” alone, and the band would enter behind him to finish it off.
“How many songs did Taylor say?”, he asked the crowd. “I can’t fuckin’ count.”
My friend and I, hopeful if nothing else, each signaled for ten more. “I know he didn’t say that,” Dave said with a laugh, concluding that maybe they’d just start playing and “see what happens”.
What happened was, as promised, a three-song encore: “Times Like These”, “Best of You”, and “Everlong”. Fireworks went off, the crowd went wild, the band waved and walked off the stage 30 minutes early.
All I’ll say about that is that it’s rare to find a festival willing to give even a headliner more than a run-of-the-mill 90-minute or two hour set time, and it was somewhat strange to see a band that prides itself on powering through massive three-hour sets giving up the option to play even a little less than that.
Still, with my first major festival (and, let’s be honest, a pretty good lineup) under my belt, a slew of new Foo fans to call my friends, heat stroke and dehydration avoided, finally a tour t-shirt under my arm, and my voice, as always, hoarse from singing along at the top of my lungs, I counted Pukkelpop as a success. All I had to do was hope that the next festival on the list would go even remotely as well.