As he made the rounds on the Rupp Arena floor, Dave Grohl was offered a half-full plastic cup of what was undoubtedly lukewarm beer. It was perhaps the most suitable offering that could have been made by a fan taken in by the pulverizing charge of “Stacked Actors,” the tune being cranked out onstage by the Foo Fighters.
After being escorted through the crowd of 12,000 back to his band mates onstage, who were still in full, voluminous throttle, Grohl grabbed the mic and called out to the person who donated the brew, “How much did you pay for this, man? Ten bucks?”
This was on a Sunday evening in April 2000 for a show in which the Foos, who were hugely popular even then, were relegated to a 45-minute opening spot for the headlining Red Hot Chili Peppers. But after sharing a drink with the crowd, there was no contesting which band was the evening’s star attraction.
Flash forward 17 years, and Grohl and the Foos are one of the most acclaimed and bankable arena rock acts in the business, with a top-selling, star-studded new album called “Concrete and Gold” and their first Rupp show in 17 years ready to roll — as a headliner, finally — on Saturday.
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Yep. Saturday night with the Foo Fighters. What could be sweeter than that?
Admittedly, any serious rock ’n’ roll at Rupp these days is notable. That was certainly the feeling when Pearl Jam broke what had been a string of predominantly country shows at the venue in April 2016. But this weekend’s sense of celebration should be somewhat different. That’s because, even after 23 years, the Foos are a band of the moment. “Concrete and Gold,” released last month, is its second No. 1 album, and it has Grohl and company sounding as heavy and urgent as when the radio staple “Everlong” ruled the airwaves two decades earlier. That might sound surprising given that top pop craftsman Greg Kurstin of The Bird and the Bee was brought on as producer (adding to a list of his credits that include Adele, Sia, Pink and Beck). Then there is the Hollywood guest list of performers who added cameos to the album, a roster that includes pop kingpin Justin Timberlake, smooth-jazz saxophonist Dave Koz and even Paul McCartney — playing, of all things, drums.
If you think all that means the Foos are going soft, then cue up “Run,” the second track on “Concrete and Gold.” The tune suggests a pop shift for about a minute. Then a sense of anthemic cool à la U2 gives way to a squall of guitar torrents and typically throat-ripping vocals from Grohl. The effect is akin to tossing a wine glass into a wood chipper.
But the Foos’ lasting appeal unquestionably is due to Grohl. Onstage, he remains the embodiment of rock ’n’ roll zeal, the frontman with one eye on the music’s volume and edge, and the other on a concert profile built on a genuine love of performance. Josh Eells, in a September cover story for Rolling Stone, said Grohl “is to rock what Tom Hanks is to Hollywood: the head cheerleader, the de facto mayor, and the guy everyone wants to hang with.”
“Everyone,” as it turns out, has been a number of prime music and show-business celebrities. At various Grammy Award telecasts through the years, the Foos have jammed with everyone from jazz giant Chick Corea to electronica stylist deadmau5. Then there were the times Grohl cut a four-song EP with the Zac Brown Band and hit the road with Kentucky’s own Cage the Elephant. And try this one for testing the memory banks: Grohl was a guest member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, playing “Honey Bee” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” when the band performed on “Saturday Night Live” in 1994. With the exception of the Grammy gigs, all of these performances placed Grohl on his most formative instrument, drums (he is one of three guitarists in the current lineup). He told Kurt Loder of MTV shortly after the “SNL” gig that performing with Petty was “the first time I really looked forward to playing the drums since Nirvana had ended,” referring to the famed grunge trio that introduced Grohl to the rock mainstream just a few years earlier.
But there was perhaps no more visible fan of the Foos than David Letterman. Among the many times Letterman hosted the band during his CBS tenure on “The Late Show” were three notable appearances. The first was the Foos’ network television debut in 1995, the second was Letterman’s first show back after heart surgery in 2000, and the last was when the band played a career-spanning montage that capped his final “Late Show” broadcast before retiring in 2015.
For the latter two appearances, Grohl and the Foos played “Everlong,” a tune that remains, after two decades, an exquisite slice of rock expression that blooms from an ominous bass riff into a thunderous but affirmative ensemble charge. It is as quintessential a piece of rock ’n’ roll as a classic Petty tune — a mix of drive, dynamics and abandon. But switch back to “Run” or most of the heavier fare from “Concrete and Gold,” and you hear how little of that sound or stamina has changed through the years.
“I’ve always been afraid of becoming a heritage act,” Grohl said in the Rolling Stone interview. “I feel like we have to prove ourselves over and over to be a band worth following.”