It didn’t take long for the enormity of the moment to sink in. Just moments after Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl led the band into “Times Like These” at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Sunday night — the first song of the first full-capacity concert at the World’s Most Famous Arena™ since COVID-19 shutdowns began in March 2020 — Grohl had to pause for a beat to look around the room and shake his head in awe. “Here we go, motherfuckers,” he bellowed, setting the tone for the nearly three hours of long-awaited rock’n’roll that was to follow.

After 15 months without live music, it did indeed feel surreal to be screaming along with 18,000 people in a packed venue — entry required proof of COVID-19 vaccination; there were reports of lax protocol by some concertgoers, although this reporter did not witness any. On a similar note, there was a small number of anti-vaxx protesters outside the venue, as there had been at the group’s warmup club show last week in Agoura Hills, Calif. But from waiting in long beer lines to high-fiving total strangers in the next seats, the whole spectacle seemed at once familiar and totally foreign. Thankfully, one could not have asked for a better arena rock sherpa than the Foos, who, with their stadium-sized songs and sound, are well-suited to rise to this special occasion and offered frequent thrills and surprises throughout their 24-song set.

None were more WTF-worthy than when comedian Dave Chappelle sauntered onstage to (mostly) credibly sing Radiohead’s “Creep” with the Foos, some 17 songs into the evening. The genesis of this pairing was a November 2020 “Saturday Night Live” episode, on which Chappelle hosted and the Foos served as musical guest. Insiders tell Variety that after striking up a post-SNL dialog with Grohl, Chappelle pitched the idea to the band on short notice, and they all learned the song just hours before showtime on Sunday. And when Chappelle belted out Thom Yorke’s iconic lyrics — “What the hell am I doing here? / I don’t belong here” — it amplified the evening’s “Is this really happening?” vibe.

But for most of the set, the Foos needed nothing more than their deep catalog of hits and a clear-eyed sense of the moment to get the audience on its feet. So many of the band’s songs are the very definition of arena rock, and favorites such as “The Pretender,” “Monkey Wrench,” “Learn to Fly,” “All My Life,” “Rope,” “This Is a Call” and “Breakout” were deployed for maximum head-banging, often with short, powerful riffy detours and instrumental breakdowns. New songs from this year’s “Medicine at Midnight” album held their own amid the classics, particularly the unhinged “No Son of Mine” and “Making a Fire,” enhanced by the backing vocals of Laura Mace, Samantha Sidley and Barbara Gruska.

Throughout the show, Grohl frequently thanked the audience for helping fulfill what he said was a long-running dream of getting back on stage in such a major setting. “Thank God we got here tonight,” he said. “I hope y’all don’t have to work tomorrow, because it’s gonna be a long fuckin’ night.”

As if it wasn’t weighty enough to be tasked with reopening Madison Square Garden — an offer first presented to the Foos a couple months ago and only made possible by recent upticks in the city’s percentage of vaccinated adults —the band also was very much grieving the sudden death of its longtime stage manager Andy Pollard, who passed away on Friday. The ‘90s staple “My Hero” was particularly poignant, as Grohl yielded a chorus to the zesty crowd to handle vocals. “That’s fuckin’ beautiful,” he said.

On a less serious note, the group took a detour to cover Queen’s “Somebody To Love” (with drummer Taylor Hawkins and Grohl swapping spots behind the kit and on lead vocals) and the Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing,” the first live taste of the group’s upcoming Brothers Gibb covers EP “Hail Satin.” “Unfortunately, the Bee Gees couldn’t be here tonight, so we thought we’d give you the next best thing,” Grohl said.

The Foos also gave a nod to hardcore fans with lesser-known songs such as the chiming “Aurora,” from 1999’s “There Is Nothing Left To Lose,” and the sleek, shiny “Arlandria,” from 2011’s “Wasting Light.” Grohl briefly forgot the lyrics on the former (“It’s been two years!”) but conjured major-key atmospherics on the latter, demonstrating the band’s deft touch with less weighty material.

But despite the light touches, there was no escaping the sense of history. “Everlong” took on even greater heft as the last song of the night, its unrelenting forward motion mirroring the sense of gradually escaping the worst days of the pandemic.

“I can’t wait to do this again,” Grohl said before launching into the song’s iconic detuned guitar riff. You know what, Dave? Neither can we.

Here is the Foo Fighters’ set list:

 

“Times Like These”

“The Pretender”

“Learn To Fly”

“No Son of Mine”

“The Sky Is a Neighborhood”

“Shame Shame”

“Rope”

“Run”

“My Hero”

“These Days”

“Medicine At Midnight”

“Walk”

“Somebody To Love” (Queen cover, sung by Taylor Hawkins)

“Monkey Wrench”

“Arlandria”

“Breakout”

“Creep” (Radiohead cover, sung by Dave Chappelle)

“All My Life”

“Aurora”

“This Is a Call”

“Best of Your”

“Making a Fire”

“You Should Be Dancing”

“Everlong”

 

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