Think outside the boom box: Dave Grohl shines light on Chicago blues
Music columnist Patrick McKenna recaps the HBO premiere of ‘Sonic Highways’
While I waited for the premiere of the HBO TV documentary series “Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways” Friday night, I knew I was about to embark on a musical journey with the names and sites I’ve been learning about since I fell head over heels in love with music. Additionally, the familiarity of this episode’s material would be even stronger, as it centered on the deep roots of American music in my hometown: Chicago.
Now, going into the viewing, I had an unabashed bias, as Dave Grohl, lead singer and guitarist of the Foo Fighters and former drummer of Nirvana, happens to be my favorite human being to ever grace the world with his musically monumental presence. Grohl is one of modern rock ‘n’ roll’s biggest names not only as a musician, but also as a fan. In 2013, he produced and directed the fantastic rock documentary “Sound City,” which focused on the iconic Los Angeles recording and its hand in generating some of the most critically-acclaimed albums of the last 40 years.
Grohl’s ability to shed light on some of American music’s most significant figures and landmarks in “Sound City” led me to assume his latest creative venture would be nothing aside from mind-blowing. Within five minutes, I sat back and marveled at the perfection of what I was seeing, unable to constrain my bewilderment at how fitting this show was to everything I knew and loved as a music fan.
The show is another example of artists promoting and releasing their work in a new, inventive style. The show will feature eight cities, showcasing their immense influence on American music, and each episode ends with a performance of one of the eight songs that will comprise the Foos’ eighth LP.
Each song is done during each episode, using lyrics from interviews Grohl conducted, making the stories and history of the cities the lyrical theme of the album.
Friday’s episode had a specific focus on blues legend Buddy Guy, who alongside Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf helped create the genre nearly every musician since has found guidance in: Chicago blues. In addition, on an even more personal level for Grohl, the episode discussed renowned producer Steve Albini, a fixture of the Chicago punk scene who went on to produce masterpieces like the Pixies’ “Surfer Rosa” and Nirvana’s “In Utero.”
Grohl does an excellent job displaying each musician who helped make Chicago music America’s music, showing under-the-radar pioneers like Willie Dixon alongside the younger greats that grew up on them, like Wilco. Besides Guy and Albini, the episode features an all-star squad of rockers to talk about Chicago’s impact on music, including Joe Walsh, Bonnie Raitt, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, and many more. Furthermore, the episode features Foo Fighters recording the album’s first single, “Something From Nothing” at Albini’s famed studio, Electrical Audio.
The most touching moment of the episode comes when Grohl discusses his own musical journey beginning in Chicago. While visiting cousins who lived in Evanston, Illinois, Grohl was taken to Wrigleyville’s The Cubby Bear, which operates as both a bar for Cubs fans and a venue for punk fans, to see his first punk rock show, Chicago’s Naked Raygun.
As Grohl recounts the experience with his cousin Tracey Bradford, there’s a glimmer in his smile that indicates how much of an imprint that night had on his life, saying, “That night changed everything I knew about music.”
The scene exemplifies the message behind the show’s purpose: There is a boundless impact in the places we go, so why not show how exceptionally grand they really are?