Review: Foo Fighters’ festival Cal Jam 18 proves a joyous celebration of Rock n Roll

This weekend, I travelled about an hour outside of Los Angeles to San Bernadino, to experience the second year of the festival Cal Jam – an event programmed and run by the Foo Fighters, featuring an eclectic mix of rock bands from around the world, and celebrating the 25 years of the band’s career with a museum, a white limo, a field of flamingos and even Dave’s “Broken Leg” throne (complete with lighting and smoke effects for the perfect photo opp).

The night would go onto end with an incredible set from Iggy Pop and the Post Pop Depression Band – possibly the final time that group will perform together – and the Foo Fighters, who not only put together a chronological retrospective of their career in reverse, but treated the crowd to a once-in-a-lifetime Nirvana tribute that the world is talking about.

But there was a lot to get through before they were to hit the stage. Opening the festival, the rocking sounds of Thunderpussy echoed over the amphitheatre as the Seattle Quartet kicked off their Fall tour at the festival. The spectacular Blues guitarist Kingfish impressed on the secondary stages, capturing the modern spirit of the likes of Gary Clark Jr, and the classic sounds of the legends of the genre; Buddy Guy et al.

“You can’t trust anybody these days” screamed Slaves drummer and vocalist Isaac Holman, as the UK duo unleashed a barrage of punk-drenched tunes on the crowd as clothes were removed and sweat dropped heavily. The duo are touring their just released third album Acts of Fear and Love. Songs in the set included their single “Cheer Up London”, “The Lives They Wish They Had”, “Where’s Your Car Debbie?”, “Beauty Quest”, which ends with Isaac proclaiming to the crowd “you are all slaves!”, Isaac jumping into the crowd for “Girl Fight”, and ended with “The Hunter”. They are one of the best live bands in the world right now, don’t miss ’em if you ever get the chance”.

San Antonio’s Fea – who have been praised by Iggy Pop in the past, and sing about periods and equality in songs like “Red”, rocked out and impressed. New Jersey sextet The Front Bottoms had a lot of fans in the crowd and gave them plenty of highlights, including “Au Revoir (Adios)”. Dave Grohl, adoring some green sunglasses, jumped on the drums early in the day with Krist Novoselić’s band Giants in the Trees, which gave early attendees a bit of a treat – and it wouldn’t be the last time the two would be on stage together during the festival.

“Pride” opened a powerful Manchester Orchestra set, with the group playing with a sense of ferocity that made them a highlight of the day. “Shake It Out”, “Pale Black Eye” and “I’ve Got Friends” were among the other included tracks. At the same time, “Sydney via London” outfit Gang of Youths were thrilling a growing crowd of converted fans, with “Let Me Down Easy”, “The Deepest Sighs, the Frankest Shadows” and “What Can I Do If the Fire Goes Out?” ending the set. They said they didn’t feel like they fit well within the lineup, but honestly I disagree – it was a diverse lineup as it was, and they rock with the best and the rest of them (and the Foo Fighters seem to agree as they’re taking them on tour around the country!).

Greta Van Fleet had a massive reception on the main stage; it felt like the majority of the crowd arrived just in time to see them. The young quartet bringing back that The Darkness-esque tinge of nostalgia. Songs like “Flower Power” and “When The Curtain Falls” were highlights. Quartet Deer Tick bringing their country-tinged rock tunes like “Me & My Man” and “Not So Dense” (which was a shout out request) to a passionate audience.

Garbage played as the sun set,with the legendary Butch Vig on drums as “No Horses” opened the set, followed by “I Think I’m Paranoid” and a cover of “Personal Jesus” which they mixed into their Version 2.0 track “Wicked Ways”. Shirley took a moment to thank the Foos for booking them, pointing out they rarely get to play American festivals these days, observing that a lot of the bands on the bill aren’t ones who get played on modern radio. “So thanks to all the bands out there for bucking the trend (that suggests that “guitar bands are dead”))”. The set was full of a great amount of energy from the band, particularly from Shirley who remains one of the greatest performers on the planet. The set continued with “Empty”, “Stupid Girl”, “Why Do You Love Me?”, “Only Happy When It Rains” and “Push It”, which closed out the set.

Closing out the secondary stages were Tenacious D, who performed tonight in advance of the release of their new album and series Post-Apocalypto! Walking on stage to the theme for the series, they were more rockin’ than I’d ever seen them before, though only included tracks from their debut album, Rize of the Fenix and The Pick of Destiny, as they commanded the tens of thousands who packed on the field for that stage’s biggest crowd of the day. After all these years, they’re still just two guys who Satan with their rock (because metal is the best type of rock, not jazz!). And a shout out for the inclusion of “Panama” (Van Halen) and “War Pigs” (Black Sabbath) during “Double Team”. “Fuck Her Gently” closed out the set, with an overly passionate singalong from the crowd.

The crowd looking on the main ampitheatre stage.

With secondary stage duties at an end, it was now time for the main events back in the ampitheatre. First up, Iggy Pop hit the stage to “Lust for Life”, as was tradition on the original PPD tour, into “Sister Midnight”, as he played tracks off Post Pop Depression, The Idiot and Lust For Life with the Post Pop Depression band for the first time since May 2016. That band includes Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Dean Fertita and Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Heldersop. It was a set that saw Pop at the top of his game, and the band seemed to be very much enjoying getting back together after two years apart, while Iggy couldn’t thank the crowd enough for giving enough of a shit to be there. As humble as ever. What a guy.

Iggy Pop Setlist
Lust for Life
Sister Midnight
American Valhalla
Sixteen
Some Weird Sin
Funtime
Tonight
China Girl
Sunday
Gardenia
Repo Man
The Passenger
Paraguay
Encore:
Break Into Your Heart
Success

And then it was time for the headline set, delivered by the band who put the whole thing together, the Foo Fighters. This time last year, when they launched the first Cal Jam, the group were celebrating the release of their latest studio record Concrete and Gold. In many ways, the festival was set up as an elaborate release party for said album, featuring the likes of Queens of the Stone Age and Royal Blood, while paying tribute to a festival held nearby in 1974 called California Jam. Back then the event featured the likes of Deep Purple and Emerson – so it’s safe to say Dave and the band are keeping the spirit of the event alive in every way here.

Now a year later, the group are still touring the record (in fact they’re kicking off more shows this month, accompanied at some by Australia’s own Gang of Youths), and the set opened with four tracks from the release: “Run”, “The Sky is a Neighbourhood”, “La Dee Da”, and “Sunday Rain”, with Taylor Hawkins on vocals. Moving from there to “Something From Nothing” off of Sonic Highways (an album they never really incorporated into their set), Dave made it apparent they were working backwards through their catalogue, telling the crowd “Tonight we’re going back. Way back. One song at a time. We’ve got 25 years worth of songs to play with. Let’s go back!”. And over the course of the night they did just that, leading all the way to their first ever single “This is a Call”. You can see the full setlist in our news piece about their set HERE.

And as that article detailed, what happened next was a moment of Rock n Roll history. After leaving the stage for an encore break, the stage was reset with a new drum kit and a brand new band – as they do at most of their shows, a night vision Dave Grohl hit the screen from backstage asking if the crowd wanted one more song, leading all the way to six, before showing off Krist Novoselic, Pat Smear, Joan Jett and John McCauley of Deer Tick. Yes, the rumoured Nirvana “Reunion” was happening, in what has to be the first proper attempt at such a performance since Kurt’s passing.

John, who has his own Nirvana tribute band, hit the vocals first for “Serve The Servants”, “Scentless Apprentice” and “In Bloom”. Then Joan came on the mic, and had three of the band’s biggest songs in store. First up “Breed”, then “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, before Krist took to the mic to thank the crowd, the guest players and to get the crowd to cheer for Kurt Cobain, in a moment which you could tell got everyone on stage a bit emotional – especially Dave on drums.

The set closed with Brody Dalle (Homme) joining on bass for “All Apologies”, while Krist moved into the accordion – having been on the bass to that point, while Dave sat on the drums and Pat Smear hit the guitar. Almost 25 years after Kurt’s passing, it was a fitting tribute for the band’s brief but world altering career – and not something you can expect to see again. It’s one of those moments where as you’re witnessing it you know you’re seeing something you’ll never see again. It was was a moment of rock n roll history, and being a part of it was truly worth the long trip from Australia.

Before we finish up this review, we want to give a shout out to Aussie band Cosmic Kahuna, who also played the festival as part of the opening night’s lineup. The group were a last minute addition after impressing the Foos when they supported them in Melbourne earlier this year. We didn’t end up making the opening night (which also featured Billy Idol), by all accounts the group smashed it. And we were lucky enough to bump into them as they headed to the exit after the Foos set (it’s hard to miss the Aussie accent in an American crowd), and it was pretty clear they had an amazing weekend.

For an event in its second year, the festival felt remarkably well organised and run. The walk between the main stage and the two other stages was a bit of a trek, and the lines for things like the Foo Fighters museum and merch was consistently long from the moment the doors opened. But toilet queues and food and drink lines were never an issue, and there was plenty of free water around the site. And getting the perfect spot for each performance couldn’t have been easier/ The only true complaint was in the price of a drink, paying AU$22 for a beer and AU$35 for a cocktail was expensive by any standards – though they were a pint and a double respectively so one might argue you were getting decent bang for your buck.

All in all, Cal Jam was a well run, beautifully crafted rock n roll festival, set around a beautiful amphitheatre in San Bernardino, California. The event was a celebration not just of the last 25 years of one of the world’s most loved rock bands, but of the genre itself – with groups from all over the world proving that rock n roll is here to stay; so long as the Foo Fighters have anything to do with it anyway. And with Dave telling the crowd he’d see them here next year, it seems like the band – and this festival – aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The only question is – how are they going to top this next year? Because that was damn, damn good.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

For more about the festival head to their official website.

We travelled to Los Angeles for the weekend courtesy of Delta and attended as guests of the festival. To book your next trip with Delta, head to delta.com.

Larry Heath

Founding Editor of the AU review. You can find him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.