Most of the great rock shows of my life have been small, close-up affairs with familiar variables: drunk band at a hole-in-the-wall before they hit it big, or an epic set list at a divey club that raged on past four encores, or an intimate evening with a musician and their guitar, singing stories just a few feet away.
Massive shows, for a variety of reasons, don’t usually end up on best-of lists. They’re much too big for that intimate feeling; they’re performed by out-of-touch bands playing for ridiculous amounts of money; they usually feature songs the groups have been churning out for years. The set list is pat, and has been passed around online so that beer runs can be well timed. You have little in common and feel little connection to the crowd. You know there will be two encores. Perhaps some dry ice and/or fireworks.
The idea that a huge show like that could be life-changing didn’t seem possible, which made the Foo Fighters concert at Wrigley Field this past Saturday all the more surprising. We know by now that Dave Grohl is some kind of rock superhuman who is currently leading his band from a seated position on the Foo Fighters’ Broken Leg Tour. But damned if Grohl didn’t make a giant show seem as personal and intimate as one at a hole-in-the-wall.
How did he do it? Systematically. First, he invited a slew of legendary local bands to open: Chicago stalwarts Urge Overkill played a short set in front of a half-hearted, half-filled stadium. Naked Raygun, the band Grohl says inspired him to pick up a guitar in the first place, showed that its members had just as much heart and teeth as they did when they played clubs like Cubby Bear. Cheap Trick was announced as “the best fucking rock band you’ve ever seen in your life,” and even without venerable drummer Bun E. Carlos, it did not disappoint, with Robin Zander’s voice somehow still sounding as strong as it did in the ’70s, and Rick Nielsen pulling out a multi-necked guitar for some songs from Dream Police. The Trick also offered some offbeat covers like Dobie Gray’s “The In Crowd” and The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting For The Man,” sung by bassist Tom Petersson.
A Foo Fighters curtain was then dropped, and the plastic cover removed from a ramp heading straight into the crowd. Before the headliner started, footage was shown from Grohl’s Sonic Highways series, with interviews from and about people and bands like David Bowie, Heart, and Joan Jett. Even though he’s the leader of one of the biggest bands in the world right now, Grohl knows and pays homage to his rock roots, which turned out to be one of the best things about his sold-out Wrigley concert.
Then the curtain dropped to display the injured Grohl, who led the set from his crazy Foo Fighters throne that was positioned to move up and down that ramp, Dr. Evil style. Grohl didn’t let his position stop him from rocking, screaming, “Chicago? Are you ready? Because it’s going to be a long fucking night, you know that, right?” After 20 years, the Foos have a wealth of stellar songs and radio hits to choose from, and they kicked off with the towering trifecta of “Everlong,” “Monkey Wrench,” and “Learn To Fly.”
Having suitably warmed the crowd up, right before an acoustic version of “Big Me,” Grohl went off on a long (and I mean long) diatribe about his relationship with Chicago, and why it was so important that this show at Wrigley turned out to be the Foo Fighters’ first sold-out stadium show. Maybe he does the same thing in Toronto and Cleveland, but it certainly seemed sincere: Grohl went on at length about the first rock show he ever saw, right across the street from Wrigley at the Cubby Bear. He mentioned that time Nirvana played Aragon, and the very first Foo incarnation at Metro. He stressed, “If it wasn’t for this city, I probably wouldn’t even be here right now.” Later, he brought out the cousin who had taken him to that first rock show, Tracy, as well as his mom, Virginia, a recently retired public school teacher who is spending her golden years touring with her son’s band. In an unbelievable bonus, it was both of their birthdays, so the whole crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to Grohl’s family.
Some people around me protested Grohl’s long speech (“Get on with it!”), but I totally appreciated what he was doing. How can you make a show this massive feel personal? How do you make thousands of people feel like they’re having their own transformative rock experience? You bring them into the story; you give them the background. You expose yourself onstage and fearlessly open up about how much you appreciate everything you have and how much it all means to you. At the start of the show, he cautioned, “Man, don’t choke me up, I don’t want to be the crying guy on YouTube tomorrow.”
Grohl is the undisputed Foo Fighters leader, but the rest of the lineup has been playing with him since the ’90s (although Pat Smear had a short hiatus, now thankfully back with the band). While introducing the band, Grohl let each member go off into a solo that paved the way into a dead-on authentic cover of a classic rock track. Guitarist Chris Shiflett pulled off some impossible Eddie Van Halen solos that led into that band’s cover of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” sung by tireless drummer Taylor Hawkins (Grohl then offered the Foos up as a Van Halen cover band for bar mitzvahs). Bassist Nate Mendel got to perform Yes’ bass-heavy “Roundabout,” and guitarist Pat Smear, who didn’t stop smiling all night, kicked into a straight-on cover of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out.” For all of these tracks, Grohl banged his head from his rock throne, having as much fun paying homage to these rock titans onstage as he would with his friends playing in his garage.
Fun covers aside (including Hawkins’ late add of the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You”), most of the show was taken up with honoring the band in question, with many cuts off of the Foo Fighters’ earliest albums (Grohl himself cited the first album as the best), so we could all examine the distance between “This Is A Call” and “The Best Of You,” which closed the show. (In another refreshing nod, Grohl refused to go off the stage and come back in the tired-ass encore routine. Or maybe he just couldn’t get off the stage very easily…) Classic Foo cuts like “The Pretender,” “My Hero,” and “These Days” all benefited from bombastic, arena-sized performances, and turned into giant stadium-wide singalongs more often than not. In between, Grohl complimented his bandmates and his road crew. He screamed at his technicians, “Come on, get me up there!” in a particularly rocking moment as he strove to move his motorized throne to the front of the stage. He insisted that the crowd thank his lighting tech, and then gave the guy four minutes off by having the crowd light up the stadium with their phones.
Near the end of the night, as he encouraged everyone to go out and start bands of their own, Grohl cried for real, overwhelmed by his own rock-fantasy moment, and the crowd fell apart. Grohl had reached out past the arena rock to give us all a lesson, in rock-music history, in family, in gratitude. I’ve seen too many rock concerts at this point to even list, but I don’t ever expect to see another epic show like this one: a rock star at the peak of his fame and abilities so grateful to everyone and everything that came before him.