“If there’s one place where music really matters, it’s New Orleans,” Dave Grohl, of the Foo Fighters, announced Friday night at the House of Blues.
The band played a rare club date to coincide with the premiere of the New Orleans episode of “Sonic Highways,” the band’s HBO series documenting the making of its recent album and the music communities in the cities where it was recorded.
In May, Foo Fighters made Preservation Hall their New Orleans home base and played a free show one night to a packed St. Peter Street in the French Quarter when the band opened the famed traditional jazz venue’s windows and played to those in the street outside.
The sold-out crowd Friday night stood and watched as the New Orleans episode served as the opening act. Fats Domino and Louis Armstrong got cheers when they appeared on a screen that had been lowered over the stage, but Big Freedia, Harry Connick Jr. and Juvenile got bigger ovations, though they were featured for only moments. The episode ended with the band in black suits, black ties and white shirts — like the members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — performing “In the Clear,” the song they recorded here.
After the credits, Foo Fighters took to the stage in person and promptly slammed into “The Feast and the Famine,” the “Sonic Highways” song recorded when the series visited Grohl’s teenage stomping grounds in Washington, D.C.
Although Grohl’s and guitarist Pat Smear’s roots are in punk, Foo Fighters are a classic rock band out of time. Cover versions of Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love” and Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” suggest the band’s affinity for ’70s rock, and it goes to the band’s core. It’s in the unironic belief in the power of electric guitars — three of them, in fact — and Cheap Trick song hooks.
Guitarist Chris Shiflett showed a knack for blues-rock licks, so he figured prominently in the sort of noodling blues breakdowns that were a staple of ’70s hard rock concerts. Friday night they added little but dynamics in songs such as “Arlandria” and the hit “Monkey Wrench,” but they did give the songs a chance to renew the excitement.
Foo Fighters are a classic rock band for post-indie, post-alternative rock times, with no patience for celebrity. Grohl’s black T-shirted average-guy persona is at odds with conventional rock stardom. Rather than see the microphone as a conduit for his grander thoughts, like U2’s Bono, or for the unchecked id of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, Grohl excused himself from talking.
“The last thing you want is me talking after a couple of shots of Crown Royal,” he joked.
His everydude quality is crucial to the band’s appeal. The songs have an unpretentious meat-and-two-sides quality, and Grohl seems so down to earth onstage that fans can see themselves in him and imagine that if they fronted a heavy rock band, they’d be like him.
That affinity made it possible for fans to shrug off his threat to punch out a fan who threw a water bottle — they’d want to deck someone, too — and for the audience members to let him pass easily through them when Grohl left the stage during a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You.” He went into the crowd and then upstairs, where he made his way to the rail of the House of Blues balcony, jokingly gave his bandmates the finger and drank a shot that someone left within arm’s reach.
The show was Foo Fighters’ third visit to New Orleans this year. Between the two “Sonic Highways”-related gigs, the band played the Voodoo Music Experience on Halloween weekend. There, the public-address system required to project the band’s sound across a field gave it a one-dimensional blare, and the situation seemed to invite Grohl to sing hard and forced.
The more modest circumstances in the House of Blues allowed the band’s sound more dimension and definition and let Grohl sing with more nuance and less holler. The Voodoo set was an impressive display of power, but Friday night’s show was more musically satisfying.
Since “Sonic Highways” has aired, the band has played shows in the cities where it was filmed, often with hometown musical guests playing covers associated with artists from those towns.
Trombone Shorty joined Foo Fighters at Voodoo, but Friday night they were on their own, and perhaps because funk and R&B are outside the band’s wheelhouse, their biggest nod to New Orleans’ musical culture came when Grohl dedicated a stripped-down version of “Big Me” from the band’s self-titled debut album to “the sweet people at Preservation Hall for making me fall in love with music again.”
The House of Blues show was a half-hour shorter than the Voodoo set, and it included more covers, including Cheap Trick’s “Stiff Competition,” sung by drummer Taylor Hawkins with Grohl behind the drums. The tighter set served Foo Fighters well and avoided moments when guitar riffs in one song echoed a little too strongly ones played 45 minutes earlier, as happened at Voodoo.
The tighter set wasn’t simply a greatest-hits show — Grohl had to stop “These Days” because he forgot the words — but it was full of crowd pleasers. Fans can always name additional songs they’d like to have heard, but after the covers and the closing series of “Best of You,” “This Is a Call,” “All My Life” and “Everlong,” only the most ungracious could think more was needed.
“If I had my druthers, we’d come back here once a month,” Grohl said at the end of the night. It’s hard to imagine who in the House of Blues crowd didn’t feel the same way.