It was a brief, spontaneous gesture from singer-guitarist Josh Homme at the Cal Jam ’17 festival on Saturday, but a memorable one. The Queens of the Stone Age leader spotted a sign in the crowd and asked for it to be passed forward. Moments later, at center stage, he quietly raised a sign above his head that read: “Vegas Strong.”
He flipped it over, and showed the handwritten names of 58 country music fans killed a week earlier in Las Vegas at the Route 91 Harvest festival. “We are everything when we are together,” Homme said to loud cheers. “Let’s have the fucking time of our lives.”
The moment came late in the day at the Foo Fighters‘ ambitious and lovingly organized Cal Jam fest in San Bernardino, California which gathered an impressive lineup of 19 forward-leaning rock acts, including Cage the Elephant, the Kills, Royal Blood and Liam Gallagher. That the long-planned celebration landed after a terrible week in the music world – also marked by the sudden death of Tom Petty – had some artists wrestling with the losses, while others rocked hard in defiance of the recent darkness.
Almost immediately after sharing the Vegas sign, Homme announced, “Dance with me!” and led Queens into the joyously disjointed swing of “Smooth Sailing,” part of a thunderous career-spanning set. Backstage earlier, Homme told Rolling Stone that he and Foos leader Dave Grohl attended Petty’s final concert at the Hollywood Bowl, and it left a mark.
“We’re a band that has a certain amount of darkness, a certain amount of happiness, so it’s always difficult to figure out what that mixture should be,” Homme said of Queens. “When I went and saw him play the other night, it was like, ‘Hey, man, come on…!’ So my intention tonight is for us to come out like that. It was my third time seeing him. It made a really big impact.”
As a committed proselytizer for rock & roll, Grohl is as much a true believer as Petty was for decades, which guided Saturday’s two-hour headlining performance by the Foos, who focused on rock music’s unifying power and escapism. The day-long Cal Jam was initially designed as “record release party” for the band’s newest, Concrete and Gold.
Grohl was inspired by the largely forgotten legend of the two original Cal Jam festivals (aka California Jam) in the mid-1970s, headlined by the likes of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Aerosmith to massive crowds at the Ontario Motor Speedway. (At 1978’s Cal Jam II, Ted Nugent wanted to arrive onstage dangling from a helicopter, but the FAA refused permission.) The festivals were massively successful, made a mark, then disappeared – until Saturday.
Aside from the music, there was camping and a water park, carnival rides, a recording studio, a giant skate ramp and a Foo Fighters museum. (The sign read: “Please, don’t fuck shit up.”) Parked outside was the white limo from the “White Limo” music video and Grohl’s stage throne for touring with a broken leg.
The Foo Fighters set unfolded like an avalanche of modern rock hits, beginning with “Times Like These,” “All My Life,” “Learn to Fly” and “The Pretender.” They followed with “The Sky Is a Neighborhood,” a soaring anthem concerned with planetary matters, and a highlight of Concrete and Gold.
“I know you love the rock & roll music,” Grohl said to fans, nearly shouting like a preacher, riffing on his guitar. “We’ve got a lot of fucking records. It’s going to be a long fucking night!” At the end of the night, Grohl brought out Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry for a pair of tunes, including his band’s 1977 hit “Draw the Line,” connecting the original Cal Jam fests with the 2017 edition, as well as the Beatles’ “Come Together” with guest Liam Gallagher.
While Grohl was a friend to Petty (who once invited the former Nirvana drummer to join the Heartbreakers), he didn’t share his thoughts on the classic rocker’s passing. Earlier in the day, Cage the Elephant performed a stirring cover of Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Like the Foos, Cage had performed at a star-packed MusiCares tribute to Petty in February.
Kills singer-guitarist Alison Mosshart never met Petty but performed earlier this year at Petty Fest in Hollywood. “He always seemed liked the nicest, coolest, most decent guy in rock & roll,” she said to Rolling Stone backstage. “It really hit me a lot harder than I expected. All I did for days was drive around in my car listening to Tom Petty and just crying.”
She called news of his death “one of the worst days ever. It was too much emotion. I can’t breathe – with Vegas and everything – all of it the same minute.”
For Gallagher, the week’s tragedy in Vegas was also a reminder of a similar attack on his hometown of Manchester, which suffered a deadly bombing at an Ariana Grande concert. “There’s something really dark going on here. It’s terrible, all these young kids just getting slayed, and for what?” Gallagher told Rolling Stone after his set, adding that he refuses to change his own behavior as a result. “I don’t ever get the fear, man. I will not stop doing it. No way.”
At his late-afternoon set, Gallagher ripped into Oasis’s strutting “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” still sounding very much like one himself, propelled by his current fiery band of rockers. Knees bent and singing up into the mic, Gallagher held a tambourine behind his back, projecting attitude with every lyric.
In recent interviews, Gallagher has openly craved an Oasis reunion. But with the force he brought to Cal Jam, for the first time he showed that maybe he doesn’t need them. From his new album, As You Were, Gallagher performed several songs, blending his love of Sixties psychedelic pop with a biting punk attitude. “Bold” was heavy on acoustic guitar and swirling Beatles-like organ, and on “For What It’s Worth,” Gallagher tapped into his confrontational past and sneered: “Let’s not pretend you were ever searching for saints / ‘Cause I’ve been crucified for just being alive.”
On the festival’s secondary stages, the Foos organized a wide mix of new acts and indie rock vets of real influence, from Babes in Toyland and Bob Mould to the fresh sounds of Japandroids and Pinky Pinky. At 12:30 p.m., Starcrawler performed their own take on Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
Closing the night on the festival’s Sun stage was the Kills, the intense duo who delivered a bristling set of dynamic, sexually charged blues and indie rock. Mosshart and guitarist-singer Jamie Hince are already a formidable, fully realized unit when it’s just the two of them with a drum machine, but are currently touring with a live drummer and a keyboardist/bassist.
At Cal Jam, they harmonized vocals and blended warm, twangy melodies with scraping riffs on “Kissy Kissy.” At the end of their 45-minute set, Hince and Mosshart stood amid whisps of fog blowing across the stage. Hince wrestled twitchy riffs out of his guitar. They looked at each other with a smile, sharing a moment of power and escape in some noisy rock & roll.