Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl’s festival project, Cal Jam, returned for the second time last weekend, Oct 6. Besides anticipation of a rumored Nirvana reunion, Cal Jam – originally a ‘70s festival incarnation headlined by Deep Purple that Grohl resurrected – also included a rock fan’s dream-come-true lineup featuring Iggy Pop, Garbage, Tenacious D, U.K. punk band Slaves and Australians Gang of Youths.
After last year’s successful run, which saw 30,000 rock fans descend on the old speedway grounds, Cal Jam 2018 was back at the same venue of Glen Helen Parkway, located just outside Los Angeles, in the foothills of the San Bernardino mountains. It was basically Grohl’s extended backyard barbeque with up-and-coming bands he handpicked, musician friends he loves and rock legends he admires.
The revelry began on Friday with Billy Idol, Mexican Morrissey tribute band the Mexrissey and a screening of Joan Jett’s new documentary Bad Reputation.
Seattle-based quartet Thunderpussy, eye-catching in red-sequins, tassels and fishnets, kicked things off to a fine start on Saturday’s main stage. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a crowd for the big Zeppelin sounds of the all girl group who have had to take the fight for the right to their band’s name, all the way to the Supreme Court. Does it feel like we’ve gone back in time? And it’s not just our music. Nonetheless, Thunderpussy got their seal of approval from the rock gods; Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready endorses them. Truly, they deserved an audience as expansive as the heavy riffs, complex wall of sound and thunderous Grace Slick-like vocals which destroy on tracks like “Speed Queen,” “Velvet Noose” and “Fever.”
Offering a similar throwback vibe, young brothers of Greta Van Fleet got the better time slot. However, they did not capitalize on it the way Thunderpussy might have. Vocally impressive and with fine musicianship, Greta Van Fleet, after much hype, seem to lack that spark of originality. Their drawn-out jams felt like facsimilies and bled from one song to the next, almost indistinguishable.
The Front Bottoms gave a good indie rock performance, though it was marred by frontman Brian Sella calling out his ex-girlfriend in the audience as awkwardly as the grimace their disagreeable moniker brings on. Elsewhere on the smaller stages – the mix of spitfire fast urban poetry and moody electronica gained newcomer Yungblood, all the way from Yorkshire, England, a wealth of new American fans, while Jack Black and Kyle Gass of Tenacious D unsurprisingly pulled the biggest, rowdiest, Metal-est crowd, to close the side-by-side Mountain and Sun stages.
And these weren’t even the Top 5 acts we saw at Cal Jam 2018.
As the fog hung low, one of the day’s earliest acts, Slaves, hit the stage like an electric jolt from the defibrillator; with their visceral “Cheer Up London.” The raucous punk hit from their 2015 debut was then followed with new single “Photo Opportunity,” off their latest album Acts of Fear and Hate.
The duo – singer Isaac Holman, who sings as he plays drums standing up, and guitarist Laurie Vincent – from Tunbridge Wells, England, were chuffed to be handpicked by Grohl and invited to join the bill at Cal Jam 2018 with some of their own personal musical heroes. In our backstage interview, Vincent gushed: “Jack Black is here; School of Rock is why I play the guitar.” While posters of Iggy Pop could be seen on Holman’s bedroom wall when the BBC visited his family home some years ago, they struck their best Iggy Pop pose for our portraits. And any wonder that Holman often ends up shirtless onstage.
For “Girl Fright,” he climbed the barricade and ventured into the crowd teasing out the usually ultra short, barely two-minute song, by delivering it as a spoken word piece about two girls having a fight. “I could see fake nails and fake hair all over the lovely cobbled streets of Royal Tunbridge Wells...” he sung before awkwardly climbing back onstage, lamenting, “Oh, I hurt my testicles,” to the laughter of the crowd. Then hoisting himself back to the drums, all sweaty, he shrieked and pounded like a fiend. After teasing us about heading closer to witness this girlfight, it ends suddenly with “I’m not going to get too close my shirt is new my shoes are white.”
They closed as frenzied and urgent as they began with “The Hunter,” a Clash-like punk treatise on melting polar ice caps and the lethargy of greedy politicians to do anything about global warming. They yelled in unison: “You keep it, we don’t want it.”
2. Gang of Youths
Multiple Australian ARIA winners Gang of Youths are relatively unknown in the U.S., but the Sydney quintet fronted by the hip-shaking, solipsism-suffering David Le’aupepe are fast-rising stars. Invited by Grohl not just to perform at Cal Jam, the band are also openers for the Foo Fighters’ current U.S. arena tour.
Often described as U2-esque in their songwriting and stature, Le’aupepe’s self-critical and poetic songwriting style is more akin to The National’s Matt Berninger, though the anthemic indie rock strains do call to mind the Irish rock stalwarts.
Yet the real attraction with Gang of Youths is beyond just writing anthems; anyone can program a big, stadium-roaring anthem these days with the 808 and bedroom laptop, but to write meaningful, self-reflective songs that speak to vulnerability and honesty with the lyrical wordplay and literary imagery, Le’aupepe summons in a pop song format, is far rarer and more valuable in the age of dime-a-dozen EDM. To say nothing of the personal tragedy he has had to endure, then rise above, in order to pen these songs.
He dedicated one of their best loved hits from their latest album—“The Heart Is A Muscle”—to his father, who recently passed away after a battle with cancer. This was also the reason the band was forced to cancel a string of festival dates at Lollapalooza and Outside Lands in the summer.
“Magnolia,” an impassioned song about his attempt at suicide, followed. “If you didn’t like that one, you’re going to hate this next one,” he joked. As the opening chords began, the audience went wild, cheering and dancing in tune to the drumbeat on “Let Me Down Easy,” off their second studio album Go Farther In Lightness. Le’aupepe adorably acted out almost each line he sang in between showing his come-hither dance moves, much to the delight of the crowd.
Gang of Youths closed one of the best sets at Cal Jam with the soaring “The Deepest Sighs, The Frankest Shadows,” tender lyrics backed by the kinetic energy of an amazing band of friends. Early on, he had introduced themselves as, “We’re Gang Of Youths, we’re from Sydney-via-London. Not many of you here have heard of us but hopefully after this, you won’t forget.” Was there any doubt?
What an absolute treat to see a band as accomplished as Garbage back on a festival stage where they belong! The feeling, of course, was mutual as Shirley Manson took a moment to thank the Foo Fighters for inviting them. “We don’t get invited to play American festivals that much anymore,” added Manson added, thanking those bucking the trend and playing guitar songs that don’t get as much airplay on radio the way they used to.
With thoughts of a certain Supreme Court confirmation on many people’s minds, “No Horses,” their somber standalone new single, fit the mood that pervaded. Manson, stunning in a large feathered coat with pink fishnets and a look blending Blade Runner with Harley Quinn, ominously sung “There’s a sky full of tears … And the moon is in shock. All the lovers turn cops.” She reminded us of the frightening times we now find ourselves in.
Since their multi-platinum Garbage 2.0 in 1997, the band have continued to release new albums every few years. They have confirmed their upcoming seventh album, which have them all living under one roof in Palm Springs to write and record. The release is planned for 2019.
For now, the rest of their set was filled with some of their biggest and best ‘90s hits, from “I Think I’m Paranoid” to “Stupid Girl,” and a mashup of “Wicked Ways” with Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.” An elderly gentleman with a wheelchair got up and said to me: “I didn’t realize just how much I love and miss Garbage.” For the final two songs, Manson sung fan favorite “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” to an already ecstatic crowd. And like magic, the skies started to drizzle as closer “Push It,” another familiar Garbage hit, played on.
4. Iggy Pop and The Post Pop Depression
At 19, Grohl once had the good fortune of playing drums for Iggy Pop when Pop found himself without a drummer in a club, just before a gig. Many years later, Grohl would ask Pop about their chance encounter and the proto-punk legend still remembered it. So when Grohl asked to get his Post Pop Depression band back together one last time, you imagined it might not have been too much of an ask.
And what a band it was, with Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme on guitar, Dean Fertita on keyboards and Arctic Monkeys’ Matt Helders on drums, plus extra support from fellow QTSA cohorts Troy Van Leeuwen and Matt Sweeney. Pop brought on his shirtless self and the band, led by Homme on backup vocals, gave an artful masterclass in punk and rock n’ roll.
Pop ran on stage as the frenzied strains of “Lust For Life” were played by Post Pop Depression and Homme sang the chorus “lust for life” repeatedly with much glee. Pop’s vocals didn’t sound on best form, but the mirth and proficiency of his backers made it insignificant. Plus, Iggy Pop, at 71, is a living legend, still standing and rocking. And at the end of the punk classic, he thanked everyone so earnestly, albeit with expletives, in the most endearing manner.
“Sister Midnight” from his album The Idiot followed, then “American Valhalla,” which by then saw his deep baritone find its sweet spot. “Some Weird Sin” sounded fantastic and you could hear the lineage that links QTSA to Pop so clearly. “Funtime” was as excellent as its title suggests.
A giant of rock, Pop appeared tiny as he danced to the left, clapped, then swayed to the right, while Fertita, and Homme towered next to him. New friends around him, old friends were probably not far from his thoughts, and it was lovely to hear him sing David Bowie’s “China Girl.” Good lifelong mates who kicked their respective drug addictions together in 1970s Berlin, Bowie had produced several of his albums including The Idiot and Lust For Life, as well as singing backup and playing several instruments on them.
“I feel like it’s fucking Sunday,” he said, on account of feeling so relaxed in the company of friends. After performing “Sunday” he said to the audience: “Hey, fucking thanks. I need water for this next one. It’s for romance. This is our hit, ladies’ choice.’” Then launched into “Gardenia,” his deep, unwavering baritone perfect.
Then he asked, “Did anyone fucking hitch-hike here?” It seemed like a strange question.
“Would you pick me up? You mean you’d let me be your passenger?” Ah, got it! Pop sounded amazing on “Passenger.” He even put the mic out for the audience to join in the chorus. A faint “la la la la” came back—to which he joked: “Oh yeah, sounds like kindergarten.” A consummate artist and one-of-a-kind performer, they broke the mold with Iggy Pop and how much richer is rock and all us music fans for it.
5. Foo Fighters
As the host of Cal Jam, Foo Fighters’ 18-song set, took us in reverse chronology from their most recent hits, “The Sky Is A Neighborhood” and “La Dee Da”—off last year’s Concrete & Gold, to all the hits in between; from ”The Pretender” to “Times Like These,” “Learn To Fly,” “Everlong,” right to “This Is a Call” from the Foo Fighters debut back in 1995. Then to Nirvana.
Grohl began Foo Fighters in the aftermath of Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide, bringing one of the ‘90s’ most successful bands to an unexpected end and halting the rise of the grunge movement. Over the years, Grohl has shown he prefers to not dwell in past tragedies and instead expend his energies on worthy projects which have included documentary series Sonic Highways and an upcoming docu-series based on his mother’s book From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars.
Previously unwilling to discuss Nirvana or perform any of their old songs, Grohl admitted recently that he still couldn’t hear those songs as they were so personal to him. Tonight, here to celebrate the bands and music – past and present – he appeared at peace with just giving the people what they want – a Nirvana moment.
Earlier in the day, Grohl even played drums on bassist Krist Novoselic’s new band Giants In The Trees. In the Foo’s set he also thanked Nevermind producer Butch Vig. Grohl’s long locks wet after he had doused himself with water in the middle of a song, he said: “This one goes out to Butch Vig tonight. I don’t know where he is but I love that motherfucking man,” before launching into a rock-heavy version of “These Days.”
He also asked: “Did you guys see me on my golf cart, going from stage to stage?” A true music fan, he added: “I got a chance to make friends with every fucking band on the planet!” After almost two hours of Foo Fighters hits, the crowd asked for an encore. What the patient fans got was the Nirvana reunion!
John McCauley of Deer Tick kicked it off with “Serve The Servants,” and deeper cut Scentless Apprentice” and then “In Bloom” – his vocal delivery, a nice match with the chosen songs. Then female rock legend Joan Jett took over with a rocking version of “Breed.” But it was the unmistakable solo guitar strains on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that brought chills to the packed amphitheater as Jett brought a veritable rock chick gravity to the Kurt Cobain-penned lyrics with her well-worn rasp.
As Grohl was settled as drummer behind his kit, it was left to former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic —who had originally started the seminal band with Cobain while still in high school—to thank Jett. He then said: “I just want to hear one big cheer for somebody, I wanna hear a big cheer for Kurt Cobain.” The audience indulged happily with loud cheers, claps and whistles. Jett then introduced Brody Dalle from The Distillers to play bass, as Novoselic switched out to the piano accordion for the massive sing-along on “All Apologies.”
After all taking a bow, arms locked together, Grohl stepped up to the mic at the close of the night and said: “Thank you, Cal Jam. I’ll see you next year. That was fucking awesome!” To think Grohl dreamt up Cal Jam as a way to celebrate last year’s Concrete And Gold album launch in a bigger venue. Now it’s a full-fledge festival that looks like it might become an annual SoCal event.