Reviews of shows I've been to (and maybe you have too!)

Foo Fighters/Social Distortion @ Verizon Center (11/11/11)

Grunge is a strange animal. It ostensibly grew out of punk and underground alternative, meaning that it was destined to be short-lived, with the burning out of Nirvana and Alice Chains seemingly inevitable in retrospect. However, this ethos was always at odds with the self-professed arena rock idolatry practiced by the bands themselves (The Who for Pearl Jam, Black Sabbath for Soundgarden, Queen for all of them); witness the evolution of Stone Temple Pilots into glam arena stars Velvet Revolver. So what to make of the Foo Fighters? Spawned out of the demise of THE definitive grunge band and conceived as nothing more than a McCartney-esque outlet for founder Dave Grohl’s musical ambitions, they always managed to walk a fine line between their grunge roots and arena rock calling. Yet their ability to survive while keeping this balance in tact is tempered by the nostalgia they inevitably inspire for a musical “golden age,” which perhaps transforms them more into the last extant remnant of the grunge movement, rather than allowing them an identity as their own band.

Just as contradictory is punk itself. Thanks to the Sex Pistols, lasting more than a matter of months is grounds for being labeled sell-outs. With The Clash the rare exception, punk bands have used this ideal to avoid change at all cost, whether it results in repetition (The Ramones) or destruction (pretty much everyone else).  Does the fact that Social Distortion continues to tour and record agree with this thesis? Clearly the current environment, in which any aging rock band can guarantee itself  a sound financial future by reforming or continuing to tour past their expiration date, is a factor. And Social D has never been one for major experimentation, sticking with their rockabilly-based sound for nearly three decades. This begs the question: is Social D still relevant? Does opening for the Foo Fighters enhance or diminish their stature? The Rolling Stones used to have their heroes open for them on tour, so it follows that today’s stars do the same. Unfortunately, the essence of Social D is lost in a 17,000 seat arena. The energy generated by the band when I saw them at the Starland Ballroom in 2007 was completely dissipated by the time their musical notes reached my ears in the top row of the Verizon Center (judging by the reaction, or lack thereof, by the audience members in the pit, it didn’t seem to travel much past the front of the stage). The indifference of the crowd was appalling but not surprising, considering the venue, the location (i.e. not on the West Coast), and the general makeup of most of the attendees. Social D gave a standard run-through of their best songs, clearly in opening-band-45-minute-set-list-of-greatest-hits mode. Not that I would ever complaining about hearing “Prison Bound” or “Story of My Life.” But it was a little depressing to be the only ones standing and rocking out throughout the entire set, and seeing the band run through a couple of album cuts would not have helped matters. I sadly doubt that the band won any converts that night; I can only hope that in hindsight, some of the younger audience members will come to realize the uniqueness of seeing a true pioneer band in person.

(In trying to come to term with this mix-up of musical genres, I would be remiss to not mention the future: The Joy Formidable opened the show with a kick-ass set. The three-piece Welsh outfit managed to pull off an amazing opening set. Lead singer Ritzy Bryan pulled out all of the guitar-god theatrics (slamming her guitar, messing around with feedback, smashing the drumkit) while dressing like Kim Gordon. Her energy was matched by her band’s frenetic playing and surprisingly strong song repitoire. For the few who were fortunate enough to catch their set, it was a glimpse of the future.)

By contrast, the Foo Fighters’ throwback set was warmly welcomed, in spite of its anachronisms. Guitar solos, guitar duels, sing-alongs, covers and performances of various snippets; the only thing keeping this from being a Rush show in 1978 was (thankfully) a drum solo. In addition to riffing on “Shoot to Thrill” by AC/DC, the band’s veritable homage to 70’s arena rock was topped off by a full-on cover of “In the Flesh?” by Pink Floyd. Otherwise, the band ran through a pretty standard set of hits, which have become (at least for this crowd) anthemic. The crowd was suitably amped up throughout, and reveled in singing along to the bands’ catalogue before going wild as each song finished.

Thankfully, the lack of creativity in the set list was balanced by the spontaneity in the band’s playing. Perhaps the most revelatory observation was Dave Grohl’s complete transformation into a hybrid of Bono and Angus Young. Grohl spent the entire evening running back and forth between sides of the stage, interrupted only by his frequent soirees to a mini-stage set up in the middle of the arena.  His obvious excitement about playing in his (quasi-)hometown was evident in the giant smile on his face, as he made references to various local hotspots (and coldspots) while regaling the crowd with tales of DC back in the day. Sadly, Grohl’s dominance meant that the rest of the band was kept anonymous. Guitarist Chris Shiflett got to share some of the spotlight during some drawn-out guitar interplay with Grohl, and drummer Taylor Hawkins sang lead vocals on a new song, but second (or even third at this point) guitarist/punk legend Pat Smear remained mainly firmly in the background throughout the evening..

Highlighting the show was the encore break, in which Grohl and drummer Taylor Hawkins taunted the crowd about their return. Each cheer added another song to the evening’s set list, each lull brought a chorus of boos and feigned anger by the Foos. The feedback cycle continued until Grohl appeared at the center stage to perform “Wheels,” “Best of You” and “Times Like These” acoustically, with the crowd providing all the backing he would need. Out of nowhere, the band kicked back in during the final stanza of “Times Like These,” before Grohl played to both his musical and D.C. roots by bringing former Hüsker Dü frontman (and current D.C. local) Bob Mould out to play a song from the new Foo Fighters album. Disappointingly, the band eschewed a possible performance of a classic Hüsker Dü song in favor of a rather random cover of “Breakdown” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Yet in hindsight, the performance actually represented the perfect culmination of an evening of paradoxes: arena-rock smashed together with the ‘80s underground alternative scene that emerged out of the punk rock movement founded on the basis of destroying arena rock, performed by one of the last remaining grunge bands. Clearly, the Foo Fighters are comfortable wrapping all of their influences together, while remaining free of the genre labels that confounded their predecessors. My my, hey hey

Social Distortion Set List:

  1. Bad Luck
  2. So Far Away
  3. Machine Gun Blues
  4. Story of My Life
  5. Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown
  6. Reach for the Sky
  7. Prison Bound
  8. Don’t Drag Me Down
  9. Ring of Fire

 

Foo Fighters Set List:

  1. Bridge Burning
  2. Rope
  3. The Pretender
  4. My Hero
  5. Learn to Fly
  6. White Limo
  7. Arlandria
  8. Breakout
  9. Cold Day in the Sun
  10. Stacked Actors
  11. Walk
  12. Monkey Wrench
  13. Let It Die
  14. These Days
  15. This is a Call
  16. In the Flesh? (Pink Floyd cover)
  17. All My Life

Encore:

  1. Wheels
  2. Best of You
  3. Times Like These
  4. Dear Rosemary (with Bob Mould)
  5. Breakdown (with Bob Mould) (Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers cover)
  6. Everlong
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