It's just coincidence that while I'm binging on Arena Rock that a big portion of the Foo Fighter's recent DVD Live at Wembley Stadium popped up on cable tv. Being a fan of Grohl and his Foo Fighters I found watching this program an offer I couldn't refuse. And with Grohl announcing late last year that the band would be taking some time off, it seemed appropriate to take stock of what has become maybe THE Arena Rock band of the 21st Century.
Recorded live at London's Wembley Stadium, the Foo Fighters played two nights in June of '08. Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins and the other guys and gal (because the band is really about those two main guys anyway) kick off the show in pure attack mode with their hit "The Pretender" and don't let up for the duration of the DVD. The Wembley crowd sings along heartily with anthems like "Breakout", "Monkey Wrench" and "Best of You" as they mosh and pump their fists in the air.
When Nirvana ended with Kurt Cobain's suicide, I just kinda assumed the two remaining members of the band would drift off into obscurity. And as good a drummer Dave Grohl is, with Cobain being the driving force in Nirvana nothing hinted that Grohl could be a front man himself. So it was sort of a surprise when Grohl released the first Foo Fighters album as a fully formed artist in his own right, writing and performing the disc almost single handedly. It was an even bigger surprise that it was really good.
In what was either canny strategy or just great timing, Grohl came in as the Grunge movement he helped usher in was losing steam. His ability to take Nirvana's soft / loud song structures and screamo vocals infuse it with Classic Rock sensibilities and massive song hooks set Grohl up to be the future of Arena Rock. Free to lead his own band, Grohl came up with a winning sound that was slightly formulaic, unsubtle and meant to be shouted and thrashed out by thousands of people. He became the Foreigner of the young generation (which on a lot of music blogs would be an insult but here it is high praise).
Which brings us back to a live setting, as I started to watch the program I wondered how the Foos would work out the issue of playing hits. On album, the Foo Fighters can be varied in the beat and melodies of their music. When it comes to their hits, they often work the same territory of breakneck punky post grunge or midtempo almost Tom Pettyish ditties. Wisely, Grohl finds a way to break down some of his hits, so while "Learn To Fly" gets the full band treatment other songs like "My Hero" gets acoustic and two thirds of "Everlong" is just Grohl by himself with an electric guitar. He works the crowd perfectly, going for every known "big gesture" (crouching low, running wild, arm extended in victory, etc). At the end of the DVD, they pull some stunt cameos by having John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page come out to jam on some Zeppelin with Grohl at the drums.
A great performance is just part of a music DVD though, it's a visual medium as well. Director Nick Wickham and whoever edited this thing has put together one of the best music concert DVDs I've seen. As animated as Dave Grohl is, watching the Foo Fighters is mainly watching one guy which can be deadly dull on a visual scale. Wickham's approach is to present a big Arena show as if it was a full contact sporting event. Cameras zoom, shake, bounce and lose focus as they move in and out of close ups of hammering hand movements and flying hair. Stage smoke adds atmosphere along with the big video screen as the camera catches every lighting flare it can. Then the robo cameras skim along the top of the crowd as they mosh or shout en masse. Editing moves quickly, at an almost Michael Bay level, so instead of two hours of looking at Grohl smile and grimace you get a range of shots and action. The elements help build the drama as it rains halfway through the show, making the sweaty performance seem more like you're watching grainy Super Bowl footage from the 70's. In this DVD, Grohl is like the star quarterback throwing a touch down pass before an enthusiastic crowd.
The excitement becomes palpable as the Foo Fighters tear through my favorite Foo song, "All My Life". For a moment, I felt like I was there rocking out with a throng of British fans. On their A game, backed with a stadium of 86,000 people and brilliant videographers, the Foo Fighters conquer the Arena Rock format. Now we'll have to wait to see what's next.