Foo Fighters’ Cal Jam full of rock ’n’ roll party favors

Foo Fighters at Cal Jam, October 7th, 2017. Photo by Michelle Shiers

Dave Grohl and his Foo Fighters headlined a joyous little shindig called Cal Jam upon the panoramic desert grounds of the Glen Helen Regional Park on Saturday. Joining them were Grohl’s bromantic companion Josh Homme and his Queens of the Stone Age, Cage the Elephant, Royal Blood, Liam Gallagher, the Kills, Babes in Toyland, Japandroids, Bob Mould, Wolf Alice, the Struts, Circa Waves, Fireball Ministry and White Reaper, all part of an extended family of Foo friends that rounded out a bill that once again made for some frustrating viewing decisions, based upon competing set times. 

In addition to the top-heavy lineup, there were carnival rides, outdoor movies, a mobile recording studio and a Foo Fighters Rock ’n’ Roll Museum, which doesn’t exactly recall the stanky dirtweed, macramé halter top, jeans shorts vibe of 1974, but the ever-industrious Grohl was hell-bent on throwing an entertaining backyard party that was more about inspiration than replication. Concert attendees who chose to camp Friday night were treated to party featuring Washington, D.C.’s own go-go heroes, Big Tony & Trouble Funk.

Coming off the ambitious HBO series, “Sonic Highways” for which the Foo Fighters recorded in eight cities across America, the ambitious Grohl had the insane idea of recording the next album live onstage in front of an audience at the Hollywood Bowl, or just simply having a blowout there. Luckily a reasonably mature adult stepped in, and a “compromise” of throwing a festival to celebrate their new release “Concrete and Gold” was reached. The festival also served as the kickoff for the Foos’ full-scale American tour, which runs through December.

There were plenty of talented young minor leaguers on the bill, but “Dad” rock reigned the day. The audience reflected that, as it was an impressive cross-section of age groups, dominated by Gen Xers, but with plenty of boomers and millennials intermingled. Londoners Wolf Alice made a beautiful racket; Cage the Elephant’s Matthew Schultz began their spirited set (which included a Tom Petty cover) in a smart three-piece suit and ended it in his very strange-looking bondage skivvies. Liam Gallagher’s set was steeped deeply in his usual miserable wanker persona. Old-timers Bob Mould and Babes in Toyland proved that they aren’t yet ready to be put out to pasture. Particularly impressive were the Kills, whose primal roar recalled the best early White Stripes material and further expanded upon it. Singer Alison Mossheart has her hair flippage down pat, and stage presence to burn.

Queens of the Stone Age took the stage at dusk and delivered a muscular 90-minute set of all the hits and more. Looking fit and wearing a confident smirk, Homme halted mid-show to hold up a fan’s sign proclaiming “Vegas Strong” honor to the victims in Nevada. It was one of many attempts at promoting a sense of unity from across the bill. Given the tragedy occurred less than a week ago, security measures were more strict — visible, professional and yet not overtly heavy-handed. The onsite staff and police were checking vehicle’s trunks and undercarriages as the crowd of more than 30,000 entered the grounds.

If the Foos are the Beatles, the Queens are the Stones, as the Foos come off as your sweet, trustworthy older brother, whereas the Queens is your brother’s bad-boy bestie who looks at your kid sister in all the wrong ways.

Grohl took the stage alone and played through several verses of the poignant “Times Like These” before the rest of the band joined him midway through, and then they were off, playing a raucous, 2-plus-hour set of songs from across their substantial catalog. As Cal Jam was a party, there were guests aplenty — from Greg Kurstin (who helmed the Foo Fighters latest release) and his partner Inara George from the Bird and the Bee to a rather brilliant appearance from jazz saxophonist Dave Koz and Mossheart of the Kills, to Rick Astley killing it on a delightfully metal version of “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Then there was Aerosmith’s Joe Perry (who appeared at the 1978 version of Cal Jam), joining them for the classic “Walk the Line,” making the whole shebang come full circle.

Perhaps the lone thud in the Foos set was a particularly hilarious attempt at the Beatles “Come Together” with Liam Gallagher’s bleating lead vocals. Appearing drowsily from the wings in an oversized hoodie and shorts as if he was about to attend a Happy Mondays gig at the Hacienda in 1989, Gallagher essentially butchered the Beatles’ classic before surrendering the mic over to a comely young fan and then proceeding to leap into the crowd. “That was all planned,” quipped Grohl, also mentioning that he had been privy to Gallagher’s ass crack.

Sure, there were a few things to whine about, namely what ails most festivals at Glen Helen Amphitheater: the traffic, the parking (always come early) and simply too much good stuff across a great expanse with set times battling against one another. This left some of the second-stage bands at less than their deserved capacity due to people setting up homesteads for optimal headliner spots in front of the main stage. That and the hoof between the main and side stages made seeing all one desired to see virtually impossible. But on the flip side, there was a lot to see. And yes, drink prices were typically stratospheric, but you could also find a plate of delectable ribs that could have co-starred on an episode of “Vikings.”

The original Cal Jam, held in 1974, was a massive undertaking for its time, with the loudest amplification system ever installed, the highest paid attendance and highest gross in history. It was held not far from Glen Helen Amphitheater (the scene the US Festivals in 1982 and ’83) at the long-since-demolished Ontario Motor Speedway and drew an estimated  300,000-400,000 fans. Looking back, the lineup was an impressive one, with Deep Purple headlining along with Black Sabbath, Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Rounding out the bill were The Eagles, Black Oak Arkansas, Earth Wind and Fire, Rare Earth and Seals and Crofts. The show was filmed and later shown on ABC in a series of concert specials, and KLOS broadcast the concert live across Southern California. also a first for its time. A follow-up, California Jam II was held in 1978, drawing almost 300,000 to a lineup that featured Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, Santana, Foreigner, Heart, Bob Welch,Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood, among others. Ultimately, Grohl’s revamped Cal Jam hit all the sweet spots one could ask for in a one-day event, and he strongly suggested making it an annual party. In an already crowded festival scene, Grohl’s earnest gamble paid off in spades.

Photos by Michelle Shiers Photography