New York brings out the romantic in Dave Grohl, if the Foo Fighters frontman‘s display on Friday night was any indication. “I really love you. If you weren‘t married, we‘d move to Amsterdam and live happily ever after,“ he said into the crowd, gazing up from the Irving Plaza music hall‘s modest stage into the illuminated balcony. “I‘m sorry you have to stand there while I sing a love song to your face.“
As the band kicked into “Big Me,” the object of Grohl’s affection – the greying, grinning Steve Rosenthal, owner of the seminal Magic Shop studio in SoHo – whipped off his T-shirt as Grohl blanched comically. Earlier in the evening, the Foos had screened the final, New York-centric episode of Sonic Highways, the HBO documentary series that accompanies their album of the same name and charts the band’s recordings in eight American cities. Rosenthal’s bittersweet musings on the record industry were a central focus of the hour-long episode, which also celebrated the geneses of punk, folk and hip-hop via interviews with Chuck D, Joan Jett, Rick Rubin, Thurston Moore and the renowned hardcore rocker Barack Obama.
To fête the last Sonic Highways installment, the Foo Fighters took to Irving Plaza – a tiny venue for the arena mainstays, with capacity just north of 1,000 – for a raucous, unflagging set that lasted nearly two hours and 45 minutes. The venue’s stark, black-lined stage nods to the Washington D.C. hardcore clubs that Grohl frequented in his youth, and the place clearly imbued the band with a punkish enthusiasm. They drilled even their more affable rock offerings with harder, noodling metal edge; the set openers “Outside” (from Sonic Highways) and “The Pretender” (Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace) roiled with waves of languid feedback from guitarists Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear; and the inflated pop of “Times Like These” (One by One) and “Learn to Fly” (There Is Nothing Left to Lose) overtook Grohl’s assaultive screams.
Familiar covers of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Breakdown” and the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” took on a new friskiness. During the last, as drummer Taylor Hawkins held down vocals onstage, Grohl clambered atop the band’s stacks and swung over the balcony, where he paced the entire upper floor and soloed among the astonished VIP denizens before racing back to the stage in time for the song’s falsetto bridge.
The Sonic Highways TV project is notable for the deference Grohl plays to residents of these American musical hubs. In the New York episode, despite a few sobering voice-overs (and one slightly nauseating anecdote about his childhood capacity to eat street hot dogs), Grohl prefers to appraise such topics as the rise of the Ramones, Woody Guthrie’s legacy and the grim aftermath of 9/11 with a light editorial hand. He also lets his interviewees get in the best lines: As Mike D remembers of his influential Beastie Boys collaborator Rick Rubin, “He had a PA, two turntables… and a bubble machine.”
As with other installments of the Sonic series, motifs from the interviews work their way into the lyrics of the song recorded in that city: This time, the album’s power-rock closer, “I Am a River,” calls back to prophetic quotes from Nora Guthrie (Woody’s daughter), President Obama, Rosenthal and more. “We waited to give it to you,” Grohl told the Manhattan audience about to hear the song played live for the first time. They also played Sonic Highways highlight “Congregation,” which on wax features fingerpicking from Zac Brown but here built a fiercer glam-rock stomp that segued easily into “Walk,” off Wasting Light.
As their marathon set wound down near 1 a.m., well past Irving Plaza’s usual curfew, Grohl smirked at the subtly thinned-out audience: Even 20 years into the Foos’ career, he can still outlast some younger fans. “This sure is a lot of fun,” he said, kicking into the euphoric closing chimes of “Everlong.” “I’m sure glad I don’t work at the furniture warehouse anymore.”