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Cal Jam 18: Foo Fighters and Friends Reinvent the ‘Rock Festival’ with an Unforgettable Day (and Nirvana ‘Reunion’) — Recap/Photos

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To witness Cal Jam 18 in San Bernardino, Calif., was to experience rock and roll in its purest state in 2018. The Foo Fighters gathered their friends and colleagues at Glen Helen Amphitheater for the second Cal Jam under their control, and it was endlessly entertaining.

Everybody’s talking about the show-stopping mini-set of Nirvana songs that came after the Foo Fighters closed out the main stage — and with good reason, as the all-star set was truly special. But from top to bottom, Cal Jam 18 hit all the spots when it comes to what a rock festival should be these days.

An all-day music festival needs things for fans to do to pass the time in addition to watching bands and artists perform. Cal Jam excelled in that particular category, as in addition to music the fairgrounds held areas for patrons to visit the Foo Fighters’ History Museum, a barn filled with clippings, props, music equipment, Dave Grohl’s cast from his infamous leg-breaking a few years ago, and more. It was fully stocked with one-of-a-kind memorabilia for Foo Fighters fans to fully immerse themselves with.

Judging by the line to get in the barn as the day progressed, this was a big hit among those in attendance. This guy probably enjoyed it:

As for the music, the lineup was well constructed, bringing acts from all across the rock and roll realm to the same spot, offering patrons a variety of different sounds and styles throughout the day.

One of the earliest bands in the day was Slaves (UK), a duo from England who make a ton of noise with just a guitar (or bass) and a drum set:

Despite their early set and a small gathering watching at the main stage, Slaves put on a hell of a show — the type that makes it easy to imagine their full show in a tiny, sweaty club is just out of control.

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, a young blues guitarist from Mississippi, played early on one of the side stages and wailed on guitar, his bluesy style blending with the partly-cloudy atmosphere for a fantastic introduction to the day’s festivities.

Giants in the Trees, a band from Seattle featuring Krist Novoselic (formerly of Nirvana) played on a side stage, and it was the scene of the day’s first surprise (but perhaps not totally unexpected) guest spot when Grohl joined his pal Krist and the band for a song.

The cool weather was a bit of a surprise, too, considering 2017’s Cal Jam hovered near 100 degrees and made for a scorching experience.

This time, it was steadily partly cloudy, which made everything that much more enjoyable, and made the view from high up in the lawn area (taken during Manchester Orchestra’s typically solid set in the afternoon) especially nice.

One of the day’s biggest takeaways would have to be the crowd reception for Greta Van Fleet. The young band’s precipitous rise in the rock ranks over the past year has been something to behold, and with their debut full-length Anthem of the Peaceful Army coming on Oct. 19, they’re bound to get even bigger.

Playing at 4:30, Greta Van Fleet packed the main stage area, and fans went nuts — fists pumping in the air and camera phones flashing for songs like “Highway Tune” when singer Josh Kiszka nailed that drawn-out note:

Theirs was one of the standout sets of the day, which says a lot considering I went into it with heightened expectations due to how much buzz they’ve attained in recent months. Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, perched side-stage watching the set unfold, was obviously into it as well.

As the day turned to late-afternoon and night began creeping in, who better to play the main stage than Garbage?

Shirley Manson and the guys turned in a ten-song set that was filled with candor (such as when Manson apologized to the crowd for “fucking up,” before laughing and saying that she actually enjoys it when they do that) and some of their hits, including “I Think I’m Paranoid,” “Push It,” “Stupid Girl” and “#1 Crush.”

The biggest crowd at the side stages came for its final act, Tenacious D. Presumably slotted on a side stage for time flow purposes on the main stage, it was pretty obvious they would have done just fine on the bigger stage.

Without the props and set design of a typical Tenacious D main stage set at their disposal, it was somewhat nice to see Jack Black and Kyle Gass (and their backing band) play a more traditional set of music — with silliness, of course, like when their guitarist was possessed by the devil and they had to engage in a “rock-off” to get his soul back (as featured in their 2006 film/album The Pick of Destiny).

After the D shut down the side stages, attention focused over to the main stage, where the fiery Iggy Pop, backed by the Post-Pop Depression band (Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme and friends), demonstrated why he’s one of the most cherished (and offbeat) icons in punk-rock history.

Iggy may have strode to the stage in a snazzy blazer, but it was quickly shred in favor of that iconic shirtless look he’s had for so long.

Blending songs from both the Post Pop Depression album Iggy recorded with Josh Homme in 2016 and others from throughout his career, the set was a fantastic chance for a lot of people in attendance to see his live show for the first time (something that’s probably pretty likely). Kudos to the Foo Fighters and their crew for getting Pop on the lineup, as what Homme said during the set (something to the effect of “He was teaching you all about music before you even knew you were learning!” is definitely accurate.

With the Nirvana ‘reunion’ rumors having swirled for a few days, thanks to the Foo Fighters’ social media channels, when it was finally time for the band to take the stage, there was an anticipatory air about things. Grohl promised a special show and ‘treats’ throughout their lengthy set, which found the band playing songs in reverse chronological order. Noteworthy  moments of the main set included Hawkins’ drum riser launching up into the sky for “Sunday Rain”:

And Grohl dedicating part of “Arlandria” to his mother, Virginia, who was sitting on the side of the stage watching her son do his thing.

Beginning the set with four songs from 2017’s Concrete and Gold sent a bit of a message, as that was somewhat surprising, and it continued as they slammed through hit after hit. It was especially odd seeing “Everlong” performed well before the end of the show, as is almost always the custom at a Foo gig. But they were committed to the “playing everything in reverse” plan, culminating in a first set finale of “For All the Cows” and “This Is a Call,” off the 1995 self-titled debut record.

Then, it happened. Even knowing that a special reunion, of sorts, of remaining Nirvana members Grohl, Novoselic and Pat Smear was coming, it still packed an emotional punch. Seeing Grohl slam the drums on several classic Nirvana songs isn’t something fans have had many chances to see over the years, let alone Novoselic standing there plucking the bass accordingly. Special mention must be given to Deer Tick’s John McCauley, who subbed in for the late Kurt Cobain and was perfect, his voice hitting the jagged, snarling tones of “Scentless Apprentice” in as dissonant and pained a way as on Cobain’s original version.

Three songs in, Joan Jett took over for McCauley, singing “Breed,” Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “All Apologies” to cap off a truly unforgettable moment.

By the time it was all over, a light rain was sprinkling, as if the spirit of Seattle was making itself present in honor of Cobain (please excuse the somewhat obvious weather cliche), and another Cal Jam was in the books.

A personal comment about the venue: Glen Helen Amphitheater has a certain reputation, at least among online reviews, as being a hassle for fans in just about every way. While leaving the parking lot was a chore after the show (gridlock was visible in nearly every dirt lot and it was somewhat confusing) and visiting the multiple stages required scaling several grassy hills (which can be tough for some folks), overall there were few issues of note.

Two years in, the Foo Fighters have clearly hit gold with Cal Jam — and while it’ll be tough to top the Nirvana set and all its magic, we can’t wait to see what the guys cook up for 2019.

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