Foo Fighters’ 2014 HBO series Sonic Highways found Dave Grohl and his band of alternative rock titans traveling the nation to discover the musical roots of New York, Los Angeles, and other cultural hotbeds.
The ambitious, eight-part documentary was an incredibly compelling watch because it showed how America developed its complex musical identity, detailing what gives Nashville its honk, New Orleans its stomp, and Chicago its blues. Even when the songs Grohl and Co. wrote as an ode to each city faltered, the Nicest Guy in Rock’s passion for music and storytelling ultimately shone through.
It’s a shame, then, that the band has kept things so homogenized on the Sonic Highways World Tour, which hit St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center Saturday night. The Twin Cities got the same batch of Foo Fighters tunes that Kansas City heard Friday night and that Detroit will likely receive Monday night. In fact, not counting covers and Sonic Highways material, the Foos didn’t play a single song they didn’t air at their last Xcel gig, in support of 2011’s Wasting Light.
Of course, the aesthetic difference this time was Grohl’s elaborate, Game of Thrones-inspired wheelchair. Designed by the 46-year-old frontman in a haze of painkillers after he fell off a stage in Sweden and was forced to cancel a string of European dates, the centerpiece of the 2015 stage show features a large red Foo Fighters logo with lights and guitars splaying out of the sides.
Grohl played almost the entire show from the rock throne, his leg propped up in a cast as he wailed on “This Is a Call,” “Breakout,” and other hits. It’s impressive how well the giant throne has been incorporated into the band’s setup, as the singer/guitarist was able to drive up and down a track along the catwalk.
The aforementioned setlist stasis was somewhat made up for by the fact Grohl wrote some of the defining songs for his genre over the past two decades. “All My Life” had the entire sold-out arena fist-pumping to its monstrous chorus on Saturday. A beautiful, guitar-and-accordion rendition of “My Hero” brought out the iPhone flashlights. “Walk” (sample lyric: “learning to walk again”) continued its new life as a theme song for Grohl and his shattered fibula.
Most bands would kill to have an arsenal of hits so large that they could open with the showstopping trio of “Everlong” (Billboard Alternative Rock chart peak: No. 3), “Monkey Wrench” (No. 9), and “Learn to Fly” (No. 1), and that’s exactly how Foo Fighters kicked the night off.
It seems that the Foos have too large an arsenal of hits, though. The band has reached the point where fans can’t expect to hear anything more than several new album cuts riding on the backs of the old warhorses.
Even when Grohl dismissively proclaimed, “We don’t do those little two-hour shows anymore,” and the concert indeed clocks in closer to a Springsteenian three hours, they rarely took chances on anything attendees wouldn’t recognize from their FM radio dial.
Hell, the quintet — rounded out by guitarists Pat Smear and Chris Shiflett, bassist Nate Mendel, and drummer Taylor Hawkins — barely took a chance on Sonic Highways in St. Paul. The LP that resulted from the one-song-per-city sessions got unceremoniously represented by just three tracks: the lead single “Something from Nothing,” the peppy “Congregation,” and the clunker “Outside."
And each time, it was as if the band couldn’t wait to move on to the next chart-topper. There was no mention of the genesis of any of those tunes, no mention of the new album, no mention of how Grohl is quickly becoming rock 'n' roll’s answer to Ken Burns.
Some other trivia from Saturday night that shouldn’t be true, but is: 1) There were more songs from Wasting Light (four) trotted out Saturday night than songs from Sonic Highways. 2) There were more Van Halen covers played (three) than cuts from what is arguably their best album, 1999’s There Is Nothing Left to Lose (two). When Grohl announced earlier in the night, “We’ve been a band for 20 fucking years. I think we should play a song from each record,” it wasn’t yet apparent that he meant each record from the David Lee Roth era.
Considering the concept behind Sonic Highways, the inclusion of five covers in Saturday night’s setlist (songs by Queen and the Rolling Stones were also played) would’ve been more understandable had any of them held regional relevance to Minnesota.
A tribute to Grohl’s idols Hüsker Dü would’ve been welcome. The same goes for Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” which the Foos have done live plenty of times. If they had to have classic rock mega-hits, why not “Like a Rolling Stone”? Instead, the Xcel was treated to former members of Nirvana, the Germs, and Sunny Day Real Estate inexplicably going through the motions on “Under Pressure” and “Miss You.”
It’s safe to say that nobody in attendance would’ve rather Foo Fighters canceled their tour because of Grohl’s injury. An unnecessary cover of “Panama” is better than nothing, and the middle-eights of “Everlong” and “My Hero” will always be worth the price of admission.
Before heading into closer “Best of You,” Grohl joked with the crowd that his band wouldn’t return to the Twin Cities on their next tour, thanks to scattered boos from fans who didn’t want the concert to end. Obviously, you can count on Foo Fighters to come back to town like you can depend on them to churn out enjoyable three-minute rock songs for the everyman.
Let’s just hope that next time, Grohl assumes we saw the Van Halen reunion tour in the interim.
Critic’s bias: I’ve been a big Foo Fighters fan ever since high school, so I’m tougher on them than a lot of other bands. Still, I like to think of myself as a very rational Foo fan — I think the guitar tones on There Is Nothing Left to Lose are some of the most perfect I’ve ever heard, but I also think that “The Pretender” is one of the shittiest songs I’ve ever heard. This was my fourth time seeing the band, although that number would be one higher if Grohl hadn’t broken his leg a week before I was set to see them at Wembley Stadium in London.
Overheard in the crowd: Praise for openers Royal Blood from several different people in the line to get pizza, specifically for their ability to get such a huge sound from just two instruments. The British duo sure did put together a (little) monster of a support slot, incorporating Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” into their finale, “Out of the Black.”
Learn to Fly
Something from Nothing
Times Like These
I’m the One (Van Halen)
Cold Day in the Sun
Skin and Bones
All My Life
Under Pressure (Queen & David Bowie)
This Is a Call
Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love (Van Halen)
Panama (Van Halen)
Miss You (The Rolling Stones)
Best of You