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Cal Jam 18: The closest we might ever get to seeing Nirvana perform as Foo Fighters take us ‘way back’

Cal Jam 18 - Foo FightersBy Josh Herwitt //

Cal Jam 18 //
Glen Helen Regional Park & Festival Grounds – San Bernardino, CA
October 6th, 2018 //

When Dave Grohl decided last year to revive the original California Jam (or Cal Jam for short), there was something intriguing about the Foo Fighters turning a once-banner event into their own mini music festival.

After all, this was the same event that Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake & Palmer co-headlined at the now-demolished Ontario Motor Speedway in the spring of 1974, with Black Sabbath, the Eagles, Earth, Wind & Fire and more rounding out the bill.

But as major music festivals on U.S. soil have started to move away from rock ‘n’ roll — take a look at this year’s Coachella lineup if you don’t believe us — there have been fewer and fewer that are embracing the roughly 70-year-old genre.

That hasn’t deterred Grohl, though. In fact, it has only enticed him to bring Cal Jam back for a second straight year following a stellar 2017 edition that included the Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, Cage the Elephant, Liam Gallagher, The Kills, Royal Blood, Japandroids and so many more, including the UK’s latest Mercury Prize winners, Wolf Alice.

And although Cal Jam’s 2018 cast wasn’t quite as eye-popping as the one that took Glen Helen Regional Park by storm last October, it continued to expand in both size and scope with a new comedy tent on the grounds and a pop-up event in LA six weeks before that saw the Foos play a rare show as The Holy Shits, a secret moniker the band hasn’t used since 2014.

Cal Jam 18 - Greta Van Fleet


Greta Van Fleet

For this year’s installment, Grohl and company assembled another rock-centric roster, turning to legends like Iggy Pop with Post Pop Depression (featuring members of Queens of Stone Age and Arctic Monkeys), Tenacious D and Garbage as well as rising stars such as Greta Van Fleet, Manchester Orchestra and The Front Bottoms. Silversun Pickups were also originally listed on the bill, but were forced to cancel their appearance due to “unforeseen circumstances.” While it was certainly a bummer that the LA alt-rockers couldn’t make it out to San Bernardino, that didn’t stop us from making the 70-mile trek to the country’s largest outdoor music venue on a warm fall Saturday.

By the time we got through security and stepped inside the gates, Manchester Orchestra had just finished their 45-minute set on the main stage, which essentially was the 65,000-person Glen Helen Amphitheater that was constructed back in 1982 for the first US Festival. Next up was Greta Van Fleet, and boy, do these kids know how to rock. Zeppelin clearly runs deep in these four Michiganders’ veins, as they showcased songs off their forthcoming debut album Anthem of the Peaceful Army with frontman Josh Kiszka commanding the stage and offering his best Robert Plant impression. He even dresses the part, sporting some tight, white jeans with a water-colored blouse and necklace of feathers while his brothers Jake and Sam wore vests or shirts that looked like what you would find at a vintage clothing store.

If Greta Van Fleet evoked the spirit of the 70’s during their hour-long gig, Garbage made sure to conjure up plenty of 90’s nostalgia as Shirley Manson arrived onstage with red hair pulled back, a stripe of red face paint over her eyes, a red choker and a black-and-white ombré faux fur coat because it couldn’t have been real given her well-publicized support for PETA dating back more than a decade. Manson would eventually shed that one layer of warmth, revealing a black romper, red sweatbands and red fishnet stockings underneath as she and her cohorts — Duke Erikson (guitar, bass, keyboards), Steve Marker (guitar) and famed Nirvana producer Butch Vig (drums, percussion) — opened with their 2017 single “No Horses” on a surprisingly overcast day. Yet, the most memorable moment of Garbage’s performance came during “Only Happy When It Rains” — not because it’s still the quartet’s most popular song to this day, but because a few sprinkles, coincidentally enough, dropped from the dark, ominous sky. Hey, at least Manson must have been happy, right?

Night fell over the Inland Empire shortly thereafter, with Jack Black and Kyle Gass taking the stage for Tenacious D’s first full LA show since Festival Supreme in 2016. Though the 11-song performance hinged on the comedy rock duo’s previous studio material, the D are preparing to release their fourth album — and first in six years — Post-Apocalypto next month. “Double Team” from their 2001 self-titled debut LP, in the meantime, featured snippets of Van Halen’s “Panama” and Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” before they encored with their cheeky tune “Fuck Her Gently” as the two actors/musicians have been known to do. Nevertheless, it was nice to see Black and Gass back onstage rocking out and making us chuckle because when you start to look around, there still aren’t too many who do what they do.

The same can be said for James Osterberg Jr., or more famously, Iggy Pop. At the age of 71, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer hasn’t slowed down, and this was a particularly special occasion with his Post Pop Depression backing band after their 2016 world tour. Truth be told, anytime we get to see Queens of the Stone Age leader Josh Homme play is a treat, and with bandmates Troy Van Leeuwen and Dean Fertita as well as Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders joining him, you couldn’t ask for a better group of musicians to showcase Iggy Pop’s massive catalog as a solo artist. To begin, the foursome jumped right into the title track on Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, his 1977 commercial success, and from there delivered cuts from his other David Bowie-produced album The Idiot and Post Pop Depression. But the leathery, shirtless punk rocker is also a real hoot, and he showed his general appreciation for those of us who stood there and watched him let loose on the main stage, offering a “fucking thanks” after each song ended. You’re fucking welcome, Iggy.

Cal Jam 18 - Garbage


Garbage

Iggy Pop was a strong lead-in to the Foo Fighters’ headlining spectacle, which was supposed to start at 9:45 p.m. but actually kicked off 15 minutes prior. That’s because, after dropping a little hint earlier in the week, the Foos had something up their sleeves, but more on that in a jiffy. Grohl couldn’t have been in a much better mood, and in a lot of ways, Cal Jam feels like his own personal playground, from the fest’s outdoor movie theatre to the Foo Fighters Rock ‘N’ Roll Museum that’s filled with tons of memorabilia from the past 25 years. But Grohl also made a point on this night to celebrate the band’s history by playing one hit single after the next in chronological order, starting with “Run” and “The Sky Is a Neighborhood” on 2017’s Concrete and Gold and finishing with “For All the Cows” and “This Is a Call” from their 1995 self-titled debut. It was a little trip down memory lane, Foo Fighters style, even though there was more in store for us. What would follow we may never have the opportunity to see again.

As the Foos left the stage for their encore break, we waited patiently for them to return. The crowd, by now, had been taken for a two-hour ride with Grohl firmly at the wheel, pumping adrenaline into our veins with every minute that passed as the Foo Fighters know how to do so well during their usual two-and-a-half-hour jaunts. The video screens on each side of the stage were black until suddenly some backstage footage appeared showing Grohl with Krist Novoselic and what looked like Joan Jett. All of that would end up coming true in the last 30 minutes of Cal Jam 18, but it was a six-song encore with Grohl on drums, Novoselic on bass, the Foo Fighters’ Pat Smear on guitar and Deer Tick frontman John McAuley on both vocals and guitar as Kurt Cobain’s fill-in who got us hyped. Nirvana fans have waited 25 years for a reunion since Cobain’s sudden passing, and when you put it in perspective, it will probably go down as one of the year’s biggest surprises, even at a time in music when many industry experts say that rock now stands in the shadows of hip-hop and EDM. “Serve the Servants” came first, then “Scentless Apprentice” and “In Bloom” as Deer Tick’s John McCauley, who played only a few hours earlier on the festival’s Sun Stage, sang with the same strain in his voice to make us think Kurt was actually up there.

But what about Jett? Well, the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll followed McCauley’s performance with three songs herself, including “Breed”, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and finally “All Apologies” with Novoselic strapping on his accordion and Brody Dalle of The Distillers (Homme’s wife) taking over bass duties. This wasn’t the first time, however, that Jett had performed Nirvana material with Grohl, Novoselic and Smear. In 2014, the singer-songwriter joined the three of them onstage for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. So while Jett wasn’t exactly making history with this cameo, it was still surreal to see Grohl paying homage to his former band with other All-Star musicians at what has now become the Foos’ annual hometown fest in a matter of two years.

Will Cal Jam be back in 2019? Can it survive Southern California’s ultra-competitive festival scene at a time when proven, well-funded ones like FYF Fest seemingly can’t?

We sure think so and hope so. With the oversaturation of three-day music festivals all over the world, there’s something refreshing and relaxing about watching a bunch of a great bands for a reasonable price over the course of one day. And if we learned anything from Cal Jam 18, it’s that you can never underestimate Dave Grohl or the power of rock ‘n’ roll.

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