Foo Fighters skipped town for some new scenery to debut their new album in its entirety for a handful of fans at the tiny Velvet Jones club in Santa Barbara Friday night, giving strong evidence to support to frontman Dave Grohl’s claims that their latest is the heaviest Foo Fighters album yet.
The northbound quintet sent fans on a wild goose chase to find the club gig, with Grohl having teased fans throughout the week prior by posting pictures on Twitter of the band in practice and exclaiming how eager they are to play the new album live after so much honing in the studio. This was followed by a picture of a festive party sombrero next to a Foo Fighters tour case, giving the clearest indication yet that a double-bill show was going to happen very soon.
Grohl posted pictures of himself Friday as he drove up the coast – one with the ocean to his left in the distance with Santa Cruz Island in the distance, another with the North 101 sign. By the time he got around to the official announcement, investigative guesstimators had honed in on the location and the line had grown to over 50 people.
Mariachi El Bronx took the stage to an initially depressingly passive crowd, most of whom had never heard of The Bronx, let alone their alter-egos, which appeared in full authentic Mexican regalia and employed an assortment of traditional acoustic mariachi instruments and horns to play original compositions with English lyrics. Fortunately for the sake of quality recognization, it took roughly a song and a half to fully captivate the room with a stylistic left hook that cheerfully defied preconceived notions of what a hardcore band (and a phenomenal one at that) could deliver in such an alien format to the genre. The band’s punk aesthetic shone through the meticulous discipline of the mariachi arrangements, all-out immersion in the style allowing for flexibility and personality flourishes that resonated powerfully with the 300-capacity crowd.
El Bronx refrained from debuting any new material, a shame for the fans but immaterial to the impact of the performance. Singer Matt Caughthran basked in the knowledge of having turned the tide so immediately, swaying to the Latin grooves and relishing the moment while the rest of the band remained intensely focused on their respective instruments. Tucked amidst the tales of love, longing and loneliness are thorny lyrical gems such as on album highlight Silver Or Lead, where Caughthran takes a swipe at the hands-to-heaven approach to life: “Quit asking Jesus for help, and go out and find it yourself.”
After closing their set, which ran through the majority of the first Mariachi El Bronx record (they’re currently putting the finishing touches on their second), the pride on Caughthran’s face in saying “coming next, the Foo Fighters” said enough about his sense of accomplishment and pride at having faced the fires of indifference and given rise to new musical love among the Santa Barbara crowd – not to mention the privilege of introducing such a rare moment in musical history.
When the Foos appeared and took their place among their respective instruments, Grohl bounded onstage, gave a gleaming, toothy grin and asked, “You guys wanna hear the new record?” – Cue roaring anticipatory enthusiasm.
The new and still unnamed Foo Fighters album, produced by old friend Butch Vig and recorded on analog tape in Grohl’s makeshift garage studio, is the band’s attempt to scrap their trajectory of studio progress and go back to doing things the hard way, more organically and as lo-fi as possible. Vig’s assertion that the new material is “primal” and “raw” was immediately proven as the band tore through their new album and an entire greatest-hits set immediately after. Grohl, lead guitarist Chris Shiflett, bassist Nate Mendel, drummer Taylor Hawkins and latest addition Pat Smear on guitar brought a furious precision to the task, surgically executing the album’s 11 tracks in sequential order, in just over 35 blistering minutes of pure Rock fury.
The 28 seconds of new material we previously heard from the band in which Grohl could be heard screaming “These are my famous last words!!!” is from album opener Bridge Burning, a track far more pop-rock friendly than the initial indications suggested. With the repeated line “Whatever keeps you warm at night…. whatever keeps you warm inside,” a bitter send-off leads to a furious follow-up with Rope, offering an echoing intro not unlike King Missile’s Detachable Penis before jagged guitar blasts kick the track into full gear. The track’s core adhesive is a slow-building melody, punctuated by howls, before a jaw-dropping drum breakdown and airtight rhythm riff leading into the final chorus.
Dear Rosemary followed, a strutting clean-toned mid-tempo rocker with an atmosphere that morphs into a haunting range and rhythmic call/response with Hawkins in the bridge. We heard a snippet of White Limo from a Twitter tease at the beginning of the year, but three feet from your face it’s a pulverizing flurry of riffage and roaring that could be a highlight on The Colour And The Shape.
There’s a creeping strum intro to Arlandria that adds a strange anticipation, leading us deceptively into a very sing-song delivery that builds on lines like “Bang, bang, blown away, come again some other day,” rising to a huge chorus. Another deceptive beginning comes by way of Grohl’s pretty plucking-riff intro to These Days – an accusatory song that demands a little empathy, seething: “You say it’s over… that’s easy for you to say!” The song takes off pounding, less a revenge anthem than an accusatory “look at what the mess you’ve made, damnit.” See for yourself (thanks 64Piddy):
The percussive flurry in conclusion flowed right into Back & Forth, a bombastic chugger of a track with similar riffage to Eagles oOf Death Metal’s Cherry Cola. “I’m lookin for some back & forth with you / To feel the same things you do…”
With Hawkins sporting his typical shit-eating grin as he looked to Grohl for cues, the contrasts in member atmosphere was fascinating; while Mendel’s casual cool delivery was slightly upstaged by Smear’s playfully seductive grins, Shiflett was all business, sweating profusely as he determinedly tore through each lead.
Grohl, on the other hand, was a livewire of energy and among the upper echelon of frontmen. While Pearl Jam is known for their unforgettable live performances, frontman Eddie Vedder routinely guzzles a bottle of wine at shows, leading to slurring a disheartening amount of the time and reliably flubbed lyrics. Grohl, on the other hand, hits every word, blasts every note and gives it his entire all until the very last moment – all with a wink, a grin and a quick joke. Drenched in sweat and chomping unmercifully on a piece of gum, he’s a sharply-honed Rock machine with razor focus and an endless well of energy. Somebody give the guy a medal…. or put on a fresh pot of coffee.
The front row got a good hair-flinging sweat shower at the onset of Matter Of Time, a fairly standard Foo rocker with the repeated roaring refrain “It’s just a matter of time before… before!” At the end, Grohl wailed “What does it matter to you?!” four times over, a demanding dismissal of an offender’s token redemptive tactics.
The curveball of the album is without question I Should’ve Known, a harrowing hindsight moment that’s a roller-coaster of sadness and frustrated anger. Butch Vig believes it may have something to do with Kurt Cobain, and the idea’s not far-fetched, but we can only speculate… for now.
“I should’ve known I was inside of you / I should’ve known that was a side of you / With your hands in mine, feel me one last time,” Dave pleads, but concludes that he’s ultimately still hung up on the inflicted tragedy, screaming “I cannot forgive you yet” The song builds to a slamming close, accusatory and bitterly aware of the harsh realities taking place – a recurring theme on the album, interestingly. Discontented relationships and unresolved feelings dominate the subject matter of the record, considerably darker in tone than the majority of their previous work.
There are exceptions, however. In the chopping, healing anthem of album closer Walk, Grohl laments that “I think I lost my way,” before “I’m learning to walk again / I’m learning to talk again.” The renewal is clear, and the palette is wiped clean of the negative aggression with a fist as he screams “I never wanna DIE!!” twice over. The song’s gripping power is designed to crush radio, and it would be a surprise not to hear this track everywhere before the year’s out.
With that, the new Foo Fighters record had run its course, a fantastically searing and seemingly short return for a band who had begun to artistically work themselves into a corner before going back to basics. Judging by the roaring reception and the half-dozen goosebump moments I personally experienced as I watched the show unfold three feet away, it’s quite safe to say that the Foo’s latest is going to make some sizable waves.
It wasn’t until after Times Like These that Grohl took a moment to speak, explaining how it was Nate’s idea to play the album in front of people in a bunch of little clubs as opposed to their tiny practice space in the Valley. For the past few weeks, the band would blast through the album in one solid block in their rehearsal box, take a break and do it again. For the fans, however, that simply wouldn’t do – a little variety was called for, and it was served in spades through a closing set that included career highlights and rarities, as well as a hell of a lot of fun.
My Hero’s amped finale was extended lengthily, due in no small part to Grohl turning the mic to the audience for the chorus. The deafening response from the pit of the tiny club caused Dave to proclaim, “You guys sound so areeeena!” Our reward was a version of Wattershed so brutal, so perfect and incendiary that it’s going to be hard to listen to the recorded version ever again. The song has been given a depth, texture and impact that simply trounces the original on their eponymous debut.
An extended Everlong led to a short encore break, after which the Foo Fighters returned to end the night with a glorious triple shot of The Pretender, I’ll Stick Around and This Is A Call. Down to the very last moment, Grohl and company poured themselves into every chord, grateful for the love of a wildly enthusiastic audience witnessing something new to the entire world.
“See you next week” were Dave’s final words, an enticing open door for what’s to come. See you there…
UPDATE: Here’s a YouTube compilation of new songs filmed by squaresoflight:
Photos: Johnny Firecloud & Steve Keyes