There’s been a lot of grunge-era nostalgia in the air recently; shows by Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, a statue of Chris Cornell about to be unveiled, a new Mudhoney album waiting in the wings, and a day-long celebration of Sub Pop Records, the little label that started it all. So in this heady back-to-the-‘90s atmosphere, what could be more natural than a Nirvana reunion?
The last time the surviving members of Nirvana (bassist Krist Novoselic, drummer Dave Grohl and touring guitarist Pat Smear) took the stage in Seattle together, they were the very special guests of Paul McCartney, backing him during the encore of Sir Paul’s show at Safeco Field in July 2013. It made a huge impression on Grohl, who decided then and there he wanted to bring his own band, Foo Fighters, to the same venue someday. It took five years, but it was mission accomplished this past Saturday, Sept. 1, when the Foos headlined at Safeco, leading Grohl to exclaim, “I’m glad you’re here to see my fuckin’ dream come true!” as he gazed out at the adoring crowd during the two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza of high-octane rock and the kind of light show that makes your retinas tingle.
Grohl also extended a helping hand to his former bandmate on this outing, tapping Novoselic’s band Giants in the Trees to open. The band’s engaging blend of trippy Americana, country, folk and pop was a little lost in Safeco’s behemoth space; the group definitely packs a punch in the confines of a club, and they could certainly have benefited from a boost in volume on this night. But the audience on hand to see the Giants’ early set (which began at 6:15 p.m., before most of the audience had arrived), was nonetheless appreciative, giving a loud cheer when Novoselic walked out on stage.
Alt-rock Welsh trio the Joy Formidable was also careful not to overstay their welcome as the second opener, marveling at the surroundings; “Fuckin’ hell! This is a bit of all right, isn’t it?” bassist/vocalist Rhydian Dafydd observed (though the field’s roof was extended when the doors opened, clearing skies meant that it was retracted for the show). Lead vocalist/guitarist Rhiannon “Ritzy” Bryan also got in a plug for the band’s upcoming date at Neumos on Oct. 28, adding, “Though it won’t be as epic as this.”
The energy ramped up to the max when the Foos finally made their explosive arrival, Grohl tearing out on stage as if he’d been shot out of a cannon, promising the crowd, “It’s going to be a long fuckin’ night, motherfuckers!” And the band set the mark high with a powerhouse opening trilogy of “All My Life,” “Learn to Fly,” and “The Pretender.” “We used to have 12 songs,” Grohl gleefully stated at one point, “and now we just play until they kick us off the fuckin’ stage!” Certainly having such a hefty back catalogue means a setlist can be crafted for maximum impact, and the show leaned heavily on Foos classics (“Monkey Wrench,” “Best of You,” “Times Like These”), with the occasional deep cut mixed in (“Weenie Beenie,” from the Foos’ 1995 debut album; essentially Grohl with a guest appearance from Greg Dulli, Foo Fighters was recorded at Robert Lang Studio in Shoreline).
Even a cold couldn’t curtail Grohl’s exuberant spirits, even as it left him with a voice that became increasingly ragged during the show, and sounded completely blown out by the encore (leading the band to cancel their next few dates). He tripped down memory lane several times during the night, stating his love of Seattle and waxing lyrical about writing “My Hero” at his home in Shoreline (“Picture me in my underwear in my laundry room!”) It made Novoselic’s return to the stage inevitable, as Grohl himself acknowledged; how could he not play with his old friend who also happened to be in attendance? As reunions go, it was short and sweet; an energetic blast of the Vaselines’ “Molly’s Lips.” It was a potent choice, given the song’s history with Nirvana; the band recorded it for a BBC radio session in 1990, less than a month after Grohl had joined the group, and it quickly became a live favorite. How poignant to reach back and find a song with a Nirvana connection from an earlier, happier period in the band’s history (Novoselic also dropped in a musical reference to Nirvana at end of the Giants’ set, playing a quick riff of “Blew,” the song that was often a closing number for the band).
If rock ‘n’ roll is Grohl’s gospel, then the stage is his pulpit, and the audience his church. Caught up in the ecstasy of the moment, Grohl threw out entreaties to the crowd that were all brimstone and hellfire: “Do you love rock ‘n’ roll music? Do you love rock ‘n’ roll music? Do you want to sing rock ‘n’ roll music? Do you want to sing rock ‘n’ roll music?” He’s long preached about the rejuvenating power of rock ‘n’ roll, especially in its purest state (famously opting for analog, not digital, production for 2011’s Wasting Light), and he clearly loves nothing more than rocking out on a song, full throttle. Though that does run the risk of a show’s becoming too heavy-handed, too bludgeoning. If the intensity is always turned up to 11, you lose any sense of nuance. Grohl has a good voice under his rock scream, and the acoustic disc of 2006’s double-album set In Your Honor reveals that Foos can be just as compelling in a more restrained setting. Breaking up the set with a few quieter numbers would’ve added some welcome diversity.
But Grohl’s also careful to not take the proceedings too seriously. During an extended sequence where the band members were introduced, he managed the tricky feat of reciting the words of Van Halen’s “Jump” while keyboardist Rami Jaffee played John Lennon’s “Imagine”—a stunt worthy of Dina Martina. There was also a spirited run through of the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop,” and drummer Taylor Hawkins (wearing the now-obligatory “Save Our Showbox” t-shirt; the Foos played the venue in 2014) turned over the kit to Grohl so he could come down front and sing the lead on a cover of the Queen/David Bowie hit “Under Pressure.” Grohl’s playful eagerness to please is irresistible. And judging by the roar the greeted the evening’s final song, “Everlong,” he left the audience well satisfied.