Foo Fighters at Mt Smart (Photo: Chris Schulz)
Foo Fighters at Mt Smart (Photo: Chris Schulz)

Pop CultureJanuary 23, 2024

Tragedy hung in the air at the Auckland Foo Fighters show

Foo Fighters at Mt Smart (Photo: Chris Schulz)
Foo Fighters at Mt Smart (Photo: Chris Schulz)

The masses came and the band delivered. But there was more to this three-hour show than the Foo Fighters’ greatest hits, writes Chris Schulz.

This story was originally published on the Boiler Room Substack.

It was there when Dave Grohl introduced ‘Aurora’, the first song he ever wrote with Taylor Hawkins and one he says he now plays at every single Foo Fighters show to honour the band’s late drummer.

It was there as Hawkins’ replacement Josh Freese appeared to wipe tears from his eyes as an extended cheer echoed around Mt Smart Stadium, the applause acting as both a friendly welcome and an initiation by a converted congregation.

It was there when Grohl stepped away from his band to play a solo version of ‘Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners’, his acoustic ode to two Australian Foo Fighters fans stranded for two weeks when a mine collapsed and nearly killed them in 2006.

And it was there in ‘The Teacher,’ a trippy, Tool-y, late-set, prog-rock epic Grohl penned as a tribute to his late mother Virginia, which landed with the kind of psychedelic visuals Maynard James Keenan and co would approve of.

Photo: Chris Schulz

Tragedy was everywhere at Saturday night’s Foo Fighters show, a concert initially scheduled for 2022 but cancelled after Hawkins’ death by cardiac arrest in Colombia. It hung heavy in the thick, sticky Auckland air; it was emblazoned on the many T-shirts covered by Kurt Cobain’s face.

Grohl is, of course, a man used to tragedy.

It seems to follow him around, catching him when he least expects it. It has tried to derail his plans from the moment he first caught the public’s eye as the sinewy drummer for Nirvana, a band that rode the crest of the grunge wave until Cobain’s 1994 suicide derailed it all.

The loss of Cobain, then Hawkins, then his mother, could have killed lesser men, or at least sent them on a search for something a little less public, and a little less painful, than life on the road as the leader of one of the world’s biggest rock bands.

But as Grohl came running out onto Mt Smart’s stage on Saturday night, guitar slung around his neck, long hair strangling his face, a wired grin spread ear to ear, one thing was clear: he needs this.

“This is my happy place,” he told the heaving, nearly sold out Mt Smart crowd. “I’m never going to leave it.”

And so we got what we wanted, and what Grohl needed: another Foo Fighters show in New Zealand, one that proves our love affair with the 30-year-old group is far from over, that being away for six years hasn’t dented their appeal, and that they still pack a fairly hefty wallop when it comes to playing their stacked catalogue of hits.

If you read the reviews – there are exactly four of them, which is about as many as you can expect these days – you would be forgiven for thinking Saturday night’s show was spectacular, a vintage Foos performance, perhaps the best version of the band that’s ever visited our shores.

“Every hit was delivered with sweaty passion,” enthused NZ Herald. “Grohl and company proved they still know how to soar,” reported TVNZ. “A perfectly executed rock assault,” declared Stuff. “The band are well and truly at the top of their game,” exhaled Ambient Light.

Yes, much of that is true.

Freese is a fine addition to the band, his muscular precision and machine-gun fills breathing new life into old songs like ‘My Hero’ and ‘Monkey Wrench’.

Grohl remains a captivating front man, able to entertain with a wry smile, eyebrow raise, or by tipping multiple cups of water over his shaggy mane then shaking out his locks like a dog that’s just had a dip.

Over the three-hour show, along with excellent opening slots by local punks Dick Move and alt rock icons The Breeders, it really was a value-for-money stadium spectacle, one that felt especially nostalgic for those who saw the Foos perform at the Big Day Out on the same stage 21 years ago, almost to the day.

Photo: Chris Schulz

But was it really, as many of those reviews suggest, a champagne performance that can match any of the band’s multiple visits here over the past 30 years?

Did it rival the seismic activity of the Foo Fighters’ Western Springs show in 2011, a show so huge it really did create a “volcanic tremor”?

Does it compare to the Christchurch Earthquake benefit show at Auckland’s Town Hall that same year, a show that had Grohl running around the venue’s top deck, playing the throbbing riff for ‘Stacked Actors’ then being surprised by a sneaky pash?

Does it measure up to the Big Day Out Galatos sideshow in 2003, a big band in a small venue stuffed with fans who moshed so hard staff were forced to prop up the floor with guitar cases from underneath in case it gave way?

Personally, my fondest Foos memory comes from 1998 at the Town Hall, a concert that began with Grohl and Hawkins smashing out duelling rhythms on rival drum kits, then showcasing songs from The Colour & The Shape, still the band’s best record by some distance.

While it made up for their drizzly, undercooked performance from 2018’s Foos & Weez tour, I don’t believe Saturday night’s effort was up there with the best of them.

At three hours, a Foo Fighters setlist in 2024 is no longer wall-to-wall rock songs. Instead, it’s peppered with covers and snippets, slower moments and extended outros. Fragments of ‘Sabotage,’ ‘Blackbird,’ ‘Enter Sandman,’ ‘March of the Pigs’ and ‘Whip It’ reminded me of the 90s jukebox thing Limp Bizkit pulled off a couple of months back.

Grohl is 55 now, and there are obvious concessions to his age: his runway out into the crowd is at least two-thirds shorter than it was in 2018, and he’s definitely toned down the frenetic stage antics he used to pull off – perhaps a result of that broken leg he suffered back in 2015.

The night’s big surprise – Jack Black taking a break from a Minecraft movie for a zany energy injection covering ACDC’s ‘Big Balls’ – was a good one, but it also felt like a necessary one, a ‘WTF?’ moment in a show that probably needed a couple more of them.

Perhaps it was the sheer amount of tragedy that hung over the night. Maybe it’s age and stage. Probably I’ve just seen this band play live way too many times to have any kind of perspective on any of this.

But, to my ears, the loudest, most poignant moment didn’t come from any of the tributes, or from Grohl’s huge guitar riffs for the night’s standouts ‘The Sky Is a Neighborhood’ and ‘Best of You’, or from yet another mass singalong from a crowd in fine voice.

It came from a much quieter place. Near the end of the set, Grohl said something so simple, yet so poignant, it felt like he should probably book a spot on a therapist’s couch sometime soon.

The sun had set, it was nearing the end of the show, and a hush fell over the audience.

“I don’t like saying goodbye,” said Grohl. “So I’m not going to say it.”

I felt like Freese as I wiped away a tear from my own eye.

Keep going!