RESEDA, California It is Friday night in the San Fernando Valley and the regulars at Paladino's, a tiny biker bar, are out in full force. Hell's Angels gun their engines in the parking lot while lines of leather-clad rock fossils straighten their acid-washed jeans, run combs through their mullets and get ready to rock.
Most of the crowd has come to catch the Atomic Punks, a blue-ribbon Van Halen tribute band. But there's another contingent on-hand. Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk, actor/singer Jack Black, and porn queen Jenna Jameson are in the house, and it's unlikely they made the trek to the Valley for a Van Halen tribute band. (Click for photos from the event.)
Rumors of a surprise show at the biker hangout have simmered for weeks, and when Dave Grohl and his fellow Foo Fighters walk out, the crowd tosses fists, heavy-metal horns and cups of Miller High Life into the air.
"We're the supporting band tonight," Grohl tells the audience. "So just so you know, when we're done ... Atomic Punks!"
Foo Fighters snuck on the bill at Paladino's two weeks ago for the first of two surprise shows to help prep themselves for a festival tour of Europe. Though they have spent much of the past two years touring, they still want to road-test themselves and experiment.
"It was a great way to practice," Grohl says after the show, taking a slow drag on a cigarette. "I mean we are more comfortable doing this kind of thing than the big European 30,000-capacity festivals. Because you can really ham it up when you do these kinds of things; it doesn't really matter."
With the Foos, the line between hamming it up and rocking like a hurricane is a little blurry. It isn't clear why they need to practice any further. Grohl is a fully realized rock star, toying with fans, keeping them transfixed during and in between songs. After years of rotating members in and out, the Foos seem to have gelled with their current lineup, a model of tightly synchronized ferocity on this Friday. Taylor Hawkins is thunderous behind the drums, while Grohl, bassist Nate Mendel and guitarist/amateur boxer Chris Shiflett dance one another like a grinning, three-headed rock beast.
It has been nearly two years since Grohl and company released their third album, There Is Nothing Left to Lose, which won a Grammy Award this year for Best Rock Album. Grohl has been preoccupied with several side projects, including upcoming albums from Queens of the Stone Age and Tenacious D.
He also has been churning out speed metal in his home studio with Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, Max Cavalera of Soulfly and Slayer's Kerry King for a band called Probot. The diversions might have Foo Fighter fans feeling neglected, and Grohl knows they are itching for a new record.
"We are supposed to be making the record now," he says. "We have to stop playing for a second and focus on the record. I don't want to wait another seven months to go out on tour. I want to go back out on tour, and in order to do that, and have it be exciting, you have to have a new record, so we have to focus on that."
The band debuted two songs "Tears for Beers" and "Gun Beside My Bed" at their recent California gigs. Both boast the kind of anthemic rock riffs the band's fans have come to expect.
"I worked real hard on this one. Not," Grohl says when introducing "Tears for Beers" in Reseda. "But it's gonna be a big, big hit."
Two days later, the Atomic Punks are screeching through a remarkably lifelike version of "Hot for Teacher" at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Some 300 Foo Fighters fans who have won tickets through the band's Web site and a handful of Hollywood glitterati look on. The crowd seems confused about how to treat the David Lee Roth imitator doing splits onstage until Grohl and Hawkins join the band. Then the crowd starts rocking.
"We have sort of figured that now, instead of taking out all the 'cool' bands on tour, we'll probably just take out this tribute-palooza, where you have got the Queen tribute band, the AC/DC tribute band, the Atomic Punks and us," Grohl says. "And we're talking arenas too, not ... tiny little clubs."