I’m not used to events of this scale. The most recent gig outing prior to this was a relatively small gathering in a small Bristol city centre venue. This evening, I’m on the opposite end of the scale, at the huge London Stadium, built a few years ago for the Olympics and now serving its legacy as one of Britain’s biggest places for music and sport. I didn’t even know I was coming here up until a few weeks ago, so what an amazing surprise to find out that I’d be here tonight watching a band who already treated me to one of the best nights, back in the summer of 2015 at Milton Keynes Bowl. Dave Grohl had his leg in a cast and was chair bound (or more specifically, throne-bound) after breaking his leg a few months earlier. The slow-burning, stealth brilliance of their ‘Sonic Highways’ album had been sinking in for a little while and the setlist that night was flawless. They had the utterly iconic rock god that is Iggy Pop as a support act. It was another magical night during the greatest summer of my life, a summer that kept becoming more and more perfect with every day. So inevitably, that particular Foo Fighters show is going to be very hard to beat. Impossible even.
That show and this one tonight are two of the biggest events I’ve ever been present at, and I’m not used to it. So much so that it takes a hell of a long time to get to the inside of the venue itself. Ironically, early last year I could have been in a small crowd of 300 people watching these giants of rock play a secret gig in a small Somerset town, and I would’ve only had to walk about three minutes from my own doorstep. To the astonishment of all the local residents, out of all the places in the UK, the band chose my hometown of Frome as the place to announce their Glastonbury headline slot. The tickets were all given to lucky fan club members, and a few extra people managed to get into the show. The rest of us formed a crowd at the side of the Cheese And Grain by the huge air vent next to the stage, where you could hear the guys loud and clear, and were even able to watch them on our phone screens via a video stream being broadcast around the world. The second irony is that even though I am actually inside the gig this time, I’m still mostly watching the band on a screen due to the amount of heads in front of me. And despite there being an air vent and a wall separating us in Frome that night, I was only metres away from Dave Grohl. Tonight, he is a lot further away.
But this is no small secret gig. This is The Big Rock Show at its biggest. We underestimated just how big it would be and just how long it would take to actually get inside this place. As a result, I end up missing the thrilling punk duo Slaves, who have been on my “to see” list for a while. Another day, maybe. I do manage to catch some of The Kills, whose atmospheric drama sounds fantastic ringing out over a place this size.
But it’s the main act that everyone’s here to see this evening. That becomes clear from the volume of the screams as the Foos arrive onstage and launch into a blistering ‘All My Life’. If this place had an actual roof, it would’ve been blasted off. They’re in great form and as usual, in a great mood. You would be too if these many people were going mad for your music. It’s hit after hit: a rousing ‘Learn To Fly’ is followed by an extended version of ‘The Pretender’ that is just ridiculously good. I think I may have just witnessed one of the most incredible performances of any song in the history of music. No exaggeration. True, earth-shaking, monumental excellence.
They choose the right tracks to play from last year’s ‘Concrete And Gold’, with one of its standouts ‘The Sky Is A Neighbourhood’ sounding particularly anthemic in this setting. After a superb ‘Rope’ ends with Taylor Hawkins playing a slightly overlong, but enjoyably indulgent drum solo, he takes over lead vocals for the excellent ‘Sunday Rain’, another ‘Concrete And Gold’ track that sounds just as good as the old stuff. It also makes a refreshing change seeing Grohl simply enjoy being a guitarist. Of course, he also enjoys talking. We should be grateful that he does, for he is indeed one of the music scene’s greatest characters. Standing among the audience on the long stage runway, it’s clear that he relishes massive occasions like this as he begins ‘My Hero’ solo, leading the crowd into a singalong before the rest of the band strike back into action. It’s good to hear them still playing songs from 2011’s ‘Wasting Light’, their reinvigorating return to form after a couple of underwhelming albums. After an emotional ‘These Days’, there’s the life-affirming ‘Walk’, a total anthem brimming with blood, sweat and tears. Played with an air of raw defiance, it’s masterclass in air punching passion and empowerment through music
It would be great if they could keep it at this level all night. But after tearing through a monster like ‘Walk’, it’s fair to say that Grohl’s voice deserves a bit of a rest. He’s more than earned it. But even so, when they turn into an easily-carried-away covers band afterwards, it admittedly represents a mid-show dip. We get guitarist Chris Shiflett taking over vocal duties for a cover of Alice Cooper’s ‘Under My Wheels’, although he’s dressed like he’d be more at home in Dire Straits. The group seem to be having more fun than some of the audience. The band introductions don’t need to go on for so long either. But there is a warming moment when they frame Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ in the musical setting of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, nicely exhibiting the healing and unifying power of rock.
When I watched them in Milton Keynes in 2015, they played Bowie and Queen’s ‘Under Pressure’ with Roger Taylor guesting on drums along with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on bass. It was a joyous moment and a great surprise. But the novelty wears off when they’re still playing it three years later. This time, they haven’t got members of Queen and Led Zep with them either. But at least Taylor Hawkins is having fun doing his Freddie Mercury impressions. It’s good that as part of the whole experience, the band like to bring the audience into their world. When you have them larking about playing the songs they grew up with, it’s an endearing thing. But there are plenty of other songs to choose from instead of playing ‘Under Pressure’ again. Make each night unique by playing a different cover or two.
They became well known for playing epic sets and pushing curfews to the limit, and it’s no longer a surprise when they do. People expect it now. So there is every so often a slight lingering sense that they’re trying to stretch things out a bit these days. That’s a positive thing when you get that particularly terrific full-on assault of ‘The Pretender’. It’s not such a good thing when the covers and band introductions take up at least 20 minutes of the show. Twenty minutes which could’ve been used to fit in another five of their own tracks, and it’s not as if there isn’t plenty to choose from. Then again, there’s that matter of conserving Grohl’s vocals as much as possible, especially considering the way he screams his way through much of the set. Would he or the rest of his band even be able to hit the highs so astoundingly if they didn’t allow themselves an opportunity to relax a bit?
When the highs are as high as ‘The Pretender’ and ‘All My Life’, perhaps the flaws stand out more. On the other hand, maybe people are too busy recovering to notice. There certainly aren’t any grumbles when they kick into ‘Monkey Wrench’, and a more tender moment is received well when the tempo slows for the uplifting ‘Wheels’. There are kids here who probably weren’t even born when ‘This Is A Call’ and ‘Breakout’ were released, so it’s good to see how much this music means to some of them. There are the purists who prefer the rawness of the band’s very early material, yet it seems futile to complain about how they have grown and developed. Like Oasis, they’ve come this far despite sticking to a familiar formula, using the same ingredients to keep on creating these recipes for success. They are simply amazing at what they do.
The sound itself is top quality this evening, with every hit of the snare punching through the air with clarity like a gunshot, and the guitars sounding dense and mighty. It’s especially evident when they deliver a ferocious ‘Run’, where pummelling thrash and blood-curdling howls pair up with a heaving, powerful chorus. Tonight we have a stadium full of people singing ‘Run’ at the top of their lungs, yet this song didn’t even make the singles charts on its release last year. It’s fair to say that the charts need the Foo Fighters more than the band need the singles charts. Meanwhile, I’m not aware of who has the number 1 song this week. The vast majority of the population probably don’t have a clue either. And yet here’s a band who haven’t seen any Top 40 action this decade, selling out mammoth stadium shows all over the world. Is rock music dead? It’s looking pretty much alive to me when Dave Grohl has 75,000 people in the palm of his hand. For the second night in a row as well. I’m aware that the Foo Fighters are one of the few rock acts left that can attract huge audiences like this, and that new bands live in an age where they are unable to break through to mass exposure in a way that groups like Grohl and his men could in the 90s. Yet there’s every chance the wheel will keep turning and get to another point where the bands of the future are thrilling the masses with wild, loud rock n roll music inspired by artists that became kings. Kings like these. There are probably lots of kids here tonight who will remember this for the rest of their lives as the moment they were inspired to do something great and form a band of their own. The Foo Fighters have earned their place and duty as one of the remaining greats still carrying the torch for rock music.
The whole place is singing its collective heart out as ‘Best Of You’ and a stunning ‘Everlong’ close the night. Fireworks burst into the night sky over the stage, only fitting for a celebration of rock music on such a gargantuan scale. I can’t grumble about the throwaway cover versions, self-indulgent solos or the other great songs they didn’t play. They were so good, I didn’t even notice until afterwards that they didn’t air anything from 2014’s ‘Sonic Highways’, one of my favourite albums of recent years. When you’ve been at a gig like this, you just feel lucky to have been alive at a time when incredible bands like this are still dazzling their way into the history books. 9/10