Dave Grohl crowns a triumphant look back with partial Nirvana reunion.
When you’ve got your own festival like Dave Grohl has, you can play all the Nirvana covers you want. Cue wild scenes.
CAL JAM 18, GLEN HELEN REGIONAL PARK, SAN BERNARDINO, CALIFORNIA SATURDAY, 6 OCTOBER, 2018 ★★★★
Now in its second year, Cal Jam 18 is Dave Grohl’s own festival. Part rock bonanza, part backyard cookout, it’s a place where he gets to dictate the line-up, the barbecue and the afterparty. During the day you’ll spot him in a cowboy hat running between stages, catching his friends’ sets. Come nightfall, he lets his mane down and straps on a guitar for three hours. There are other bands here, of course, but this is very much Grohl’s party. To be at Cal Jam is to ruminate on the journey rock’s had since Grohl was sat on the drum stool for Nirvana. Even the most devout rocker wouldn’t argue that guitars have the same relevance in 2018 as they did in 1994. When Garbage’s Shirley Manson takes to the stage, Butch Vig – Nevermind’s producer – at her side, she addresses her comrades: “To all the bands who go against the grain when they won’t play us on the radio, when people say guitars are dead, we’re willing to turn back the tide!” Some of those still fighting here are from a younger generation: Canadian noiseniks Metz, British punks Slaves and Michigan rockers Greta Van Fleet. The latter are three shirtless brothers (plus a non-related drummer) who don waistcoats and feathers. Their songs are titled Anthem and Flower Power. Their solos last longer than Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird. Think the Jonas Brothers doing Robert Plant. “They remind me of my era,” says a mother to her unimpressed daughter. When Grohl was listening to Bad Brains as a teenager, punk was about tearing down the status quo with no regard for longevity. It’s unlikely he would have envisioned a familyfriendly affair such as this, complete with comedy rock duo Tenacious D. Reminders of rock’s past are manifest, most notably Iggy Pop, who brings his Post Pop Depression band with QOTSA’s Josh Homme and Arctic Monkeys’ Matt Helders to the party. With his leathered torso closer to E.T.’s than the snake-hipped rebel of his Stooges days, Iggy’s caught between elder statesman and adolescent, limbs whiplashing to the pummel of songs taken largely from his ’ 70s Bowie-produced albums.
He embodies rock’s refusal to age. “Fuckin’ thanks for checking us out,” he says, sounding like a new act opening for his heroes.
Cal Jam 18 feels more like a celebratory bash than a rock reprisal. Backstage, an enormous pig roasts on an open fire. Attendance here has two prerequisites: you play guitar, you eat meat. Both should be done with bare hands. When later the Foo Fighters play Walk, Dave Grohl raging, “I never wanna die!” over and over, it’s like he’s speaking on behalf of rock music itself. The Foos’ headline set is an apposite blowout, made up of all their hits in reverse order. Taylor Hawkins drums in swimming trunks. Three songs in, he shoots up on an elevated platform, literally taking it to the next level. Grohl addresses the crowd between extended jams of these alt-radio favourites. “I fucking love rock’n’roll,” he says while working through a stack of plectrums. He dedicates Arlandria to his “mom”, who gives a wave from the side of the stage; Best Of You inspires echoing “whoaoh-oh”s; and the run from Learn To Fly to Monkey Wrench is breathless. At the end of a pulsating two-hour main course, a grinning Grohl asks, “You want some treats?” Rumour had it that the apex of this year’s event would be a homage to Nirvana, the band who put Grohl in this position in the first place. And so, for the festival’s final 30 minutes, he returns and sits behind the drumkit. Krist Novoselic appears and straps a bass on. Guitarist Pat Smear follows. For the opening three numbers – Serve The Servants, Scentless Apprentice and In Bloom – John McCauley from Rhode Island rock outfit Deer Tick apes Kurt Cobain’s snarl as the surviving members rip through the music with all the vigour of three decades ago. An awkwardness hangs in the beer-drenched air, though. It’s not so much a moment of connection between players and crowd, more an airing of individual memories, like sifting through old photos together with juxtaposed emotions. While McCauley nails the vocals, it’s like watching a YouTuber parrot lick for lick. Grohl seems aware. “John, everybody!” he repeats, baiting applause for a man who, it must be said, hardly anyone recognises. Grohl then asks everyone to give it up for “one of the greatest fucking rock’n’rollers… Joan Jett!” Jett feels
“I miss playing those Nirvana songs. I miss being that drummer. It’s difficult territory.” Dave Grohl
more appropriate. Her interpretation is less of a futile attempt by a fan stepping into Messianic shoes. Instead, it breathes life into Cobain’s songs. The crowd are merely happy to claim their attendance. They take Instagram videos. “I wanna hear a cheer for somebody,” says Novoselic, choking. “Cheer for Kurt Cobain.” Listening to the collective response feels strange: a rooting for someone who you imagine would have felt uneasy about an event like this. “I wish I was like you,” sings Jett on closer All Apologies. “Easily amused.”
Less than 48 hours later, Dave Grohl is on the way to the airport. “I’m just recovering,” he chuckles. “I texted my manager: ‘How did we do?’ He said, ‘Attendance was great. Goddamnit, those people partied hard. The fucking beer everyone bought!’” Cal Jam’s ethos is rooted in friendship and family fun. Grohl’s eldest daughter even sang backing vocals during Foos’ set. “I camp in an RV for three days, spend time on the lake fishing, dance with Billy Idol, wake up and have honey butter Pop-Tarts. Then try to keep from losing it before playing at the end,” he says. This year’s event was especially hectic for Grohl. When not running between stages, he was grabbing 20 minutes with Novoselic and Smear in a rehearsal space. Four years ago, Nirvana were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. They invited St. Vincent, Lorde, Kim Gordon and Jett to interpret vocals. Afterwards, it continued at a club. J Mascis got on the mic. McCauley sang too. “I never thought we’d do it again,” says Grohl. There will always be those who feel it could never be a Nirvana show without Cobain, though. “It’s difficult territory,” offers Grohl. “It’s wrapped up in beautiful memories and sadness. Krist and I have different feelings about it than other people. I miss playing those songs. I miss being that drummer.” Novoselic and Grohl jam Nirvana’s catalogue in private sometimes. “That music lasts forever. We share it with someone. Someone is missing. You never forget that for one second. When we’re backstage running through them, Krist, Pat and I look at each other and the mood goes in waves. You’re hit with sadness, then you crash into a euphoric release.” He sighs. “I’ve had the same dream for 24 years – that I get to play these songs again. Sitting behind the drumkit counting into In Bloom, doing the fill at the start of Smells Like Teen Spirit. It only happens once in a blue moon but it still feels good. It’s complicated.”
For Grohl, this year’s festival was all about leading up to that reunion. “I couldn’t wait to do it,” he says. “Throughout the Foos’ set I was running and screaming for two hours, thinking, ‘I hope I survive this so I can get on to the next.’” The day after he tanked. “I was fucking destroyed,” he laughs. “It’s hard to fucking talk about but it’s a bond that Pat, Krist and I had. In those moments I wonder if we’re saying something completely different from the audience.” He stammers. “It was a trip. I should have just said that.” At the start of the night Dave Grohl set out his intentions: “Tonight we’re going through the years. How far back you wanna go? You wanna go all the way?” This year Cal Jam’s history lesson is that rock goes so far back it can never belong to just one guy. Cobain once said: “Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.” Tonight Grohl wanted to be Nirvana’s drummer. His crowd wanted to be Nirvana’s fans. Their reasons may have differed but the songs remained the same.
“I fucking love rock’n’roll”: Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl sets his stall out, Cal Jam 18, San Bernardino, California, 6 October, 2018.
Poptastic: Iggy’s Post Pop Depression band (with Josh Homme and Matt Helders) at Cal Jam 18.
Guitar heroes: (left, main pic) headliners Foo Fighters on the main stage; (right) Joan Jett and Krist Novoselic join Grohl for a selection of Nirvana tracks during the encore.