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Live Review and Photos: Foo Fighters, November 11, 2011, Verizon Center – Washington, DC

If the Foo Fighters were to place pins on a map to track their geographical lineage, Washington, DC and the surrounding area would get an awful lot of attention. Dave Grohl specifically was raised in Springfield, Virginia, a suburb of the nation’s capital, and the band would later record Grammy award-winning tracks from a basement in Alexandria. And so their show Friday night at the home of the Washington Capitals was more than just a flawless arena rock show. It was a sprawling three-hour homecoming brimming with vitality and gratitude.

The first power chords of the night began to ring out as the arena went dark and the overhead spotlights descended from the ceiling to land on the stage. When the light fixture elevated and illuminated, Grohl didn’t so much arrive at his microphone in the center of the stage, but gravitate toward it in what may as well have been a full on sprint. They ripped right through “Bridge Burning” and “Rope,” both scorching renditions that had the band in mid-set form even as they warmed up. At one point, Grohl surged forward on the catwalk protruding from the front of the stage with a heel-to-toe skip reminiscent of Steven Tyler or Mick Jagger, shredding his instrument with each lunge.

Foo Fighters

After plugging in staples “My Hero” and “Learn to Fly,” then again visiting Wasting Light with a monstrous take on “White Limo,” they pulled out “Arlandria,” a song popular enough that it could have filled out a setlist anywhere in the world, but especially poignant on this night and in this town. Prior to the song, in what would become a trend for the evening, Grohl playfully called off one of the barrier security guards from blocking an audience member’s camera, saying “oh come on, let him take a picture.” He stepped back from the mic for a moment, paused, then quickly added a “now shut the fuck up” before the band launched full throttle into what played like a serenade to their home city.

As big and bold as the songs sounded, it was Grohl’s playful, rock star spirit that set this show apart. At one point he took a survey of the audience to see how many people had seen the band previously and how many were having their first experience. The latter seemed to win out, at which point he wryly noted “thanks for waiting 16 fucking years to come and see us.” Yeah, his stories and quips included the word “fucking” a lot (I couldn’t help but wonder what the parents of the many young teens in attendance thought about that).

The showmanship extended well beyond the intermittent story-telling, of course. At various points throughout the evening, Grohl would sprint down an aisle created in the middle of the floor to an additional solo stage at the back of the arena, which would rise to become a pillar as he performed. This would set up dueling solos between Grohl and guitarist Chris Shiflet who would battle back and forth across the venue, each beckoning applause from their nearest section. There are tons of solos and elongated instrumentals sprinkled throughout the show, with Pat Smear, who calmly stayed within a tight space for most of the show, the only key member without a chance to shred individually — though he did get a deafening reception when Grohl introduced the individual members of their line-up (to be fair, Taylor Hawkins — announced as “the drummer” — got a thunderous reaction as well).

The Foos managed to funnel six different Wasting Light tracks into their setlist, then filled out the balance with a pair of covers — Pink Floyd’s “In the Flesh?” and Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s “Breakdown,” which co-starred special guest and DC native Bob Mould on guitar and vocals — and what amounted to a greatest hits barrage. After what would probably exhaust all resources of a normal man’s vocal chords on “All My Life,” the band retreated backstage only to emerge a minute later via a handy cam with night vision to tease at the inevitable encore.

When the lights came back up, Grohl emerged with only a black acoustic guitar and made his way to the heightened stage at the back of the arena, calling out to those in the nosebleeds. Before launching into sentimental, sing-a-long solo acoustic versions of “Wheels” and “Best of You,” he waxed poetic about being brought up in the area, how things have changed from then to now, and how he’s an advocate to that change — “I don’t want things to be the way they were 20 years ago; fuck 20 years ago.”

Arena rock shows have always turned me off because of the way in which they often feel synthetic (well, that and the cost of tickets and quality of seats — there were hundreds of people seated behind the stage with completely obstructed views, for instance). The stage set up and production is so costly and intensive for many of these tours that bands can’t be totally afforded freedom to change from city to city, so each interaction with the crowd is pre-planned and each setlist is identical. But Grohl’s words here — and the performance as a whole, really — felt genuine. He clearly can’t address a New York crowd and talk about how Springfield Mall has turned into a dump. And he most certainly can’t give his word for a four-hour performance at the 1,200-capacity 9:30 Club on their next tour.

Not surprisingly, the night closed with a version of “Everlong” that only served to highlight the magnitude of the song; with the 1990s full of landmark, timeless singles, few approach these heights. As main events go, this was Muhammad Ali and the recently departed Joe Frazier, a rendering where the instruments were so loud and forceful that Grohl’s vocals through the verses were almost completely drowned out, only to rise back in for the chorus. That speaks volumes considering that by this point in the night he was exerting himself so strenuously vocally — to great effect — that my own throat was starting to feel coarse by mere proximity.

As one of those who waited 16 years to finally see the Foo Fighters in person — and for it to be on this night, “the first time I sold out the big fucking arena in my hometown,” as Grohl referred to it — it was without question an experience that not only lived up to expectations, but exceeded them. Ending just before midnight, it was a three-hour event that felt unlike an ordinary tour stop. From the stories told, energy pulsating through the venue, and graciousness of the stars on stage, it felt like a culmination of nearly two decades worth of brilliance.

Foo Fighters Setlist:

Bridge Burning
The Pretender
My Hero
Learn to Fly
White Limo
Cold Day in the Sun
Stacked Actors
Monkey Wrench
Let It Die
These Days
This is a Call
In the Flesh? (Pink Floyd cover)
All My Life

Best of You
Times Like These
Dear Rosemary
Breakdown (Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers cover)

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