London’s massive Wembley Stadium and New Orleans’ tiny Preservation Hall. The Foo Fighters, the American rock band led by singer, guitarist and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, performed in the vastly different concert spaces with equal delight.
In May, the Foo Fighters turned Preservation Hall into their recording studio. The traditional jazz venue at 726 St. Peter St. served as the band’s inspiring temporary space in New Orleans.
The Foos’ New Orleans stop was part of their HBO documentary series and recording project “Sonic Highways.” Ahead of the band’s 20th anniversary last month, the Foos recorded eight songs in eight cities. Cameras documented the trips to Chicago, Austin, Nashville, Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington D.C., New York and New Orleans.
“Sonic Highways” debuted Oct. 17 with the Chicago episode. The series’ New Orleans show premieres at 10 p.m. Friday. The Foo Fighters are also performing Friday at the House of Blues.
“A city like New Orleans,” Grohl says in Friday’s “Sonic Highways” show, “I was so drawn to it because, in a way, that’s what this entire series is all about.”
Every “Sonic Highways” show includes musical histories of each city. Grohl, a music star who remains a music fan, also conducts interviews with local talent, famous and not so famous. The New Orleans show includes interviews with Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, George Porter Jr., Cyril Neville and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews.
The New Orleans episode also features vintage film of Louis Armstrong expressing his admiration for Preservation Hall, interviews with hall founders Allan and Sandra Jaffe and performance footage of Professor Longhair, Fats Domino and many others.
A quick New Orleans montage precedes the real-world work of loading instruments, amps and recording equipment into Preservation Hall. Foo Fighters producer Butch Vig surveys the space — a former Spanish tavern, photo studio and art gallery — and says, “This is a trip.”
Preservation Hall also appears to be a new world to Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins.
“So what do you do here?” he asks the hall’s creative director, Ben Jaffe, son of the venue’s founders. “Music seven nights a week,” Jaffe replies. “So it’s a bar?” Hawkins asks. “Ah, it’s not a bar,” Jaffe says. In multiple senses of the words, the hall serves music only.
The value and importance of music — to New Orleans, Preservation Hall and Grohl — emerges loud and clear in “Sonic Highways.”
“It’s an honorable, respectable, family tradition,” Grohl says. “So much that you have to pass it down from generation to generation.”
“Sonic Highways” follows familiar patterns for music documentaries but it’s also better than most. Many documentaries fawn over their subjects and eject objectivity. But “Sonic Highways” includes serious mentions of the city’s once-legislated segregation and post-Hurricane Katrina worries about New Orleans music and culture.
In addition to going the extra mile through on-location music making and filming, the series’ celebration of music, especially music in New Orleans, is genuine. As Grohl says just before the dressed Preservation Hall-style Foo Fighters perform “In the Clear,” their made-in-New Orleans song, “I wish I lived in a city like that.”
The Foo Fighters announced 26 new 2015 North American tour dates this week. The group’s previously announced show at Chicago’s Wrigley Field is sold out.