Mystery guitars, big hits and Rick Astley: the story from inside Dave Grohl’s secret London gig

Yesterday afternoon, word began circulating that the London indie-disco night Club NME would be hosting a secret and very special guest – the Foo Fighters. Now, the Foos have some form for this – in summer 2017, they took over a pub in Bethnal Green for a week, replete with ye olde time style oil […]

Yesterday afternoon, word began circulating that the London indie-disco night Club NME would be hosting a secret and very special guest – the Foo Fighters. Now, the Foos have some form for this – in summer 2017, they took over a pub in Bethnal Green for a week, replete with ye olde time style oil paintings of the group and Dave Grohl himself popping in for a chinwag – but the biggest rock band on earth playing an old working men’s club in Hackney the week before they headline Reading? It seemed spurious.

When we walked into the 150-capacity Moth Club later that night, it seemed even more unlikely – there’s no way you could have fit the six-strong touring iteration of the modern day Foos onto the tiny glittery stage, let alone the group’s usual arsenal of equipment.

And then, at 9.30pm, out waltzed Dave Grohl.  

Image: Jenn Five

Things took an even weirder turn when he picked up a guitar – for much of the last two decades we’ve become accustomed to seeing Dave playing Gibson Explorers, Firebirds, and of course his beloved Trini Lopez. Here, however, the big man was sporting something totally different – a dainty maple-necked double-cut solidbody electric with a three-saddle Tele bridge, Jazzmaster tremolo system and a pair of gold foil humbuckers. 

It turns out that this wasn’t some radical gear revolution, but in fact a simple case that Dave was travelling so light, he had to borrow a guitar from The Horrors’ Josh Leonard (who also plays for support band Saint Leonard). And that’s how Dave Grohl ended up playing the red Josh Leonard Signature model from tiny Cambridge luthier, Fidelity Guitars. 

Hayward is known for conjuring a reverb-heavy sound that lands somewhere between the gilt-edged jangle of Nuggets-era early garage rock and the melodious swoon of shoegaze, so this was a pretty serious switch-up from the Gibsons. 

To see him without his Trini Lopez, was strange – at a regular Foos gig, it feels like a protruding extension of his body, resting against his hip or wielded like a Tommy gun. Against Grohl’s bulky frame, the svelte Fidelity looked more like a child’s guitar!

Fittingly, Big Me was first on the menu at the Moth Club. Grohl, grinning and goofy as ever, made a courteous introductory speech about the NME’s long-standing support, before admitting, “I feel like a coffee shop guitarist right now” and breaking into the early hit. 

Image: Jenn Five

Another twist came when two extras walked on stage for Times Like These. As the audience craned their necks, some standing on tables to get a better view, the penny dropped that one of the on-stage players was… Rick Astley. The 80s crooner who dominated the late 2000s, not exactly of his own volition, as Rickrolling became a global prank-fad. That Rick Astley, backing up Dave Grohl on the drums. What?

In many ways it fits perfectly. For everything grunge was perceived to rally against, Nirvana always seemed more at ease with revelling in rock and pop’s cornball past. Lest we forget they dummied an entire crowd at Reading Festival 1992 by playing Boston’s More Than A Feeling before segueing into its riff-descended cousin, Smells Like Teen Spirit

It’s the type of wink-nudge move you may see a repeat of when Grohl steps back out at Reading next weekend, 27 years on. After all, a key part of Grohl’s success in steering Foo Fighters out of an enormous Kurt-shaped shadow was their ability to have a laugh.

And even with unfamiliar equipment, with a stage production essentially boiled down to deciding when the house lights would turn off or on, and with a crowd roughly 1/500th of the size he regularly courts, this five-song set was pure Foos in whimsy and whiplash. 

He mocked his own propensity for flabby outros (“I’m not ready to end the song yet! It’s going to take forever!”); lent into his riffs with one shoulder raised and the other arrowing downward, the kind of bravura troubadour flair Johnny Cash once made his own; and repeatedly called upon the crowd to match his energy levels. 

It’s part of the experience to hear “SING IT AGAIN” or “A LITTLE LOUDER” constantly throughout a full Foos gig, but last night Grohl was practically functioning as his own Greek chorus. It was a canny way of padding out the stripped-back songs without his usual phalanx of accompaniment, finding pocket in the verses and bridges he’s barked 10,000 times before, and doing pretty much all the heavy lifting himself. 

Image: Jenn Five

During the inevitable rendition of Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up, Grohl started out singing, switched to solely guitar as Astley took over vocals for the second verse, then ended up on the drums. He was in full flight throughout, milking the moment harder than all the cows.

As a honky-tonk version of Everlong slid into the closing Best Of You, it was clear that when Grohl confessed, “Let’s be honest, you’ll never see this anywhere else,” he wasn’t wrong. Astley was doing a Dave, going medieval – or, more accurately, caveman – on the skins, even standing on the kit to raise a beer aloft to the crowd during the climactic finale. 

Audience members were lifted aloft on their mates’ shoulders in turn. Would it have been nice to hear some fan favourites that only get occasional outings, like Generator or Low? Sure. Was a cramped bar going ballistic to some of the biggest radio hits of the past 30-odd years within spitting distance of the songs’ creators still great? Without question. 

Whether this was the start of something profound, or – more likely – a one-off to kill time before a run of mega-shows across the UK this month, what we can forever refer to as ‘RickGrohl’ was an insane, surreal treat.

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