BAKERSFIELD, California — The turnout was a little better this time.
When the Foo Fighters last played the Centennial Garden eight months ago, the arena was empty. Literally. Of course, it was the “All My Life” video shoot, and that was the punch line (see “Foo Fighters Out To Show They Can ‘Really Do It Up’ “ ), but still Dave Grohl and company were taken aback by the size of the crowd at their tour opener.
“This is the first time we’ve ever headlined a place this big in America,” the singer said to roaring applause. “When we were here for the video, we looked around and thought it’d be so rad if we could play places like this. Thanks a lot for coming out. This band started with a demo. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
Grohl offered sincere appreciation throughout the Foos’ 90-minute set, but perhaps it was his band deserving of the gratitude. At $12 a ticket, this was certainly among the cheapest arena rock shows of the season, a possible explanation for the variety of concertgoers, who ranged from junior high rebels with Avril Lavigne attire to retired bikers with Kiss shirts covering their beer bellies.
Most likely, though, the Foo Fighters have just graduated to arena rock status, whether they want to admit it or not. And judging by Thursday’s show, they don’t.
The group certainly has enough hits to be playing arenas, and Grohl’s stage presence and the band’s precision attack are more than fitting for a big stage, but little was done to differentiate the gig from a theater performance.
The stage design was minimal, and the lights were insignificant — even less flashy than the Foos’ theater show last fall (see “Foo Fighters Celebrate One By One In Hollywood, Thank Shakira For Penning LP” ). The theatrics consisted only of a few banners dropping, the same as in the “All My Life” video.
The crowd didn’t seem to mind. The group was met with thunderous applause when it took the stage to the opening guitar riffs of “All My Life,” delivering a spot-on version of the recent hit.
Clad in a plain white T-shirt and sporting a moustache, Grohl led the Foos into the rarity “The One,” tackling the opening line, “Everyone makes one mistake,” with noticeable intensity.
The supporting players, including a shirtless Taylor Hawkins (garnering as many cat calls as a shirtless Travis Barker did during the Transplants’ opening set), had a chance to shine three songs in on “My Hero,” which the band slowed to a crawl before breaking out into a metal jam. Hawkins even went for the drumstick toss, but missed, to the delight of bassist Nate Mendel.
“It all started right here,” Grohl said, introducing 1995′s “This Is a Call,” the Foos’ first single, which the band played to a screaming halt only to pause for one beat before going into “Times Like These.”
Grohl broke out his facial expressions for crowd-pleaser “Learn to Fly,” sort of taking on the over-the-top characters he plays in the song’s video. Already in cahoots, the audience really took to the singer’s next gag.
“I want to see some big, fat, purple hickeys,” he said. “No one gives hickeys anymore. I used to wear hickey necklaces. I used to wear hickey belts.”
The Foos didn’t leave a lot of time for necking, though, jumping into the aggressive “Stacked Actors,” during which Grohl humped his amplifier and sprinted around the arena.
After banging out a few more hits, including “Monkey Wrench,” the frontman told male fans they needed to get in touch with their sensitive sides to win over the ladies. “So don’t boo when I slow it down,” he demanded, as he went into a solo version of the One by One ballad “Tired of You.”
“Everlong” closed out the first set, but before the band was off the stage, techs were setting up for an “encore.” The Foos played their current favorite, the “deep” album track “Overdrive,” followed by a song “we haven’t played in five years,” 1995′s “Weenie Beenie.”
Of course, there’s got to be a hit in the encore, so for the finale the band broke out “Breakout” and fans seized one last chance to surf the crowd or mosh with the neighbors.
The Transplants’ opening set also got the crowd moving, but their catchy hip-hop and drum ‘n’ bass-inspired punk led to crowd circles closer resembling a dance club than CBGB.
Drummer Barker, singer/guitarist Tim Armstrong (of Rancid) and singer Rob Aston were joined by a second guitarist, bassist and keyboard player to capture the diverse sound of the trio’s self-titled debut (see “Transplants Fuse Bands And Styles, Much To Ire Of Punk Police” ), but at times the additional instruments just made the music mumble.
Aston was the main vocalist, but Armstrong’s demeanor and voice showed he has years more experience, especially in larger venues. Aston, tattooed head and all, was a powerful figure, but he sang and rapped a tad slow, even making a mess of the hit “Diamonds and Guns,” during which Son Doobie’s guest vocals were sorely missed. “D.J. D.J.,” the Transplants’ next single, was a standout, along with the closer “Tall Cans in the Air.”
The Special Goodness, a side project of Weezer drummer Pat Wilson, opened the night with a short set.
The tour hits Oakland on Friday at the Henry J. Kaiser Arena (see “Foo Fighters Announce U.S. Tour Dates” ). Yep, more arenas.