It was only a weekend ago that the joyful sanctity of massive music gatherings was (once again) ravaged by violence. But Saturday in San Bernardino, thousands congregated, full of excitement and ready for a fun-filled day as contemporary rock’s most popular band, Foo Fighters, celebrated the release of their new record, Concrete and Gold, with a big ol’ jam called CalJam, a name referencing a popular all-day, Woodstock-like rock concert from the ’70s headlined by Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake & Palmer at the Ontario Speedway. Dave Grohl’s updated version featured his favorite new artists from around the globe playing on three outdoor stages throughout the day, with camping the night before for those who wanted to make a weekend of it.
Grohl told the crowd he thought about doing the event at the Hollywood Bowl, but “that shit ain't loud enough” — though San Bernardino's Glen Helen Regional Park probably was chosen more for its size more than anything. In addition to the stages, there were carnival and water park rides and a “Foo Fighters Museum,” which had a long, steady line from daylight to darkness.
Yes, the Foos have been around long enough and been successful enough to have a museum, and followers and fanatics willing to wait all day in the hot sun to see it, too. Love them or hate them (and at this point I don’t see why anyone would hate them), Foo Fighters carry the torch for rock & roll like nobody else can, not even the biggies who opened for them, Queens of the Stone Age. Queens did put on a heartfelt performance Saturday, referencing the Vegas tragedy more overtly than any other act on the bill when frontman Josh Homme took a fan’s handwritten “Vegas Strong” sign from the crowd, held it up for all to see on the giant video monitors, then turned it around to reveal a list with the names of the Vegas victims who died.
“We’re nothing when we’re apart, and we’re everything when we’re together,” Homme said. “Let’s have the fucking time of our lives.” Then he plowed into the band’s groove-heavy “Smooth Sailing.” QOTSA really did seem to be in the moment, intently and elatedly playing their guts out onstage, with material from Songs for the Deaf and Lullabies to Paralyze particularly pulverizing to the eardrums.
Earlier in the day, it seemed every band was in the same fierce mood, and no one held back instrumentally or physically as they played. Whether the tragedy was in the back of everyone’s mind or Grohl simply assembled some of modern rock’s most visceral acts (I think it was probably a little bit of both), the event had an urgency and zealousness about it that was different from all of this past summer's big-ticket fests. From The Struts’ gregarious glam-rock commanding the crowd early on (singer Luke Spiller even got everyone to sit or kneel on the hot pavement, then jump up enthusiastically when they started their next song) to The Kills' gloomy grinds on the second stage at dusk, it was an intense yet extremely gleeful day of music.
Also memorable: Royal Blood's garage-y metal mayhem, Wolf Alice's dissonant yet beguiling musings, and my favorite act (other than the Foos), Cage the Elephant, who put on a wildly emotive set, complete with a peppy Petty cover (“Mary Jane's Last Dance”) and a stripped bare, literally (singer Matt Shultz ended his set in nothing but underwear and nylon stockings) run-through of their catchy yet clamorous hits complete with New York Dolls–style theatrics.
Theatrics weren't necessary for Foo Fighters. They've got the hits and they've got that nice-guy charisma that always makes you feel like you're just hanging with some cool dudes, playing the music we all love in their garage. As the ’70s-looking festival T-shirt made clear, the old-time rock & roll aesthetics of CalJam are a perfect fit for the Foos, but the moniker represents the band's love of the jamming-with-friends concept, too. They had a few people join them onstage during their two-hour-plus set to hammer home the idea: The Kills' Alison Mosshart, Rick Astley (doing the “Never Gonna Give You Up” duet that went viral a few months ago), Oasis’ Liam Gallagher (whose set earlier in the day was fine, even if he failed miserably yet amusingly on “Come Together” with FF) and the biggie, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, who headlined CalJam II back in ’78. Perry played on the bungled Beatles track and a stellar version of “Draw the Line.”
Still, for all the jamming and hamming it up that went down Saturday, it was the well-crafted songs and simply exultant performance by the Foo Fighters that made the event exceptional and inspirational. As they showed at Grohl's epic birthday bash at the Forum a couple years ago, the Foos simply love what they do to a blissed-out level. It's hard to act too cool and not dork out or sing and dance along when you're enveloped by their jubilance, even on the hits you might have heard a million times before on the radio, including “My Hero,” “All My Life,” “These Days,” “Times Like These” and “Everlong.” After a week of tragedy and loss, they all seemed to take on layered meaning when played in front of a large, celebratory crowd.