It makes sense that the first two episodes of the new HBO series Sonic Highways, chronicling the recording of eight songs in eight separate cities for the Foo Fighters' forthcoming album of the same name, would take place in Chicago and Washington D.C. Both represent a sort of homecoming: the former a metaphorical one for fans returning to (or visiting for the first time) the city that incubated the blues, the roots and soul of America's complicated relationship with homegrown music; the latter a literal one as Foos front man Dave Grohl visits his hometown.
The ambitious project, conceived by Grohl while filming the documentary Sound City about the life and death of the iconic California recording studio, is more than just a look at a rock band making a record. In fact, strict fans of the Foos will likely be disappointed by the fact that music from the band occupies only small portions of each one-hour episode.
This series is something much more, a look deep into the DNA of this country's music through the eyes of one of its most successful bands. Grohl calls it, "a love letter to the history of American music."
The cities include Chicago, Washington, D.C., Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Seattle and New York. Each episode is filmed in a different city and centered around the band recording a song in a studio Grohl considers at the heart of that city's music history. During the recording process, the singer and crew not only document the making of the song, but also interview dozens of musicians and figures in the music community, a veritable who's who of each city's musical founders and others who acutely understand it.
By the time the interviews have been completed and the time in each city is over, Grohl has written lyrics reflective of the time spent there. One of the most interesting parts of each installment is the finale. The finished song is performed by the band video-style, and lyrics are splashed across the screen like graffiti. Because the words are inspired by and sometimes directly quoted from interviews shown during the episode, listening to the song feels like being invited behind the curtain, into Grohl's thoughts and the band's songwriting process.
It might be tempting to think a band like the Foo Fighters would stick primarily with their musical domain, but that assumption is proved incorrect almost immediately when a substantive part of both the first episode and its accompanying song "Something for Nothing" are dedicated to blues legend Buddy Guy.
But, much of Chicago's further music history is dissected from pop-rock icons Cheap Trick to underground punks Naked Raygun to famed indie-rock engineer and producer Steve Albini, who occupies an important spot in both the hour-long episode and the rise of underground music in the Windy City.
Naturally, Grohl plumbs the depths of D.C.'s punk scene in Episode 2. It not only gave birth to his own immense talent, but to a host of bands, notably Bad Brains and Fugazi, most of which literally made records by hand released on Dischord Records and recorded at Inner Ear studios, where the Foos take up residence -- that influenced a generation of music to come.
Ian McKaye, who is responsible for some of that genre's seminal music, is front and center here, but Grohl somehow manages to weave in the complete opposite end of the sonic spectrum with an exploration of go-go music from its godfather Chuck Brown to the long-tenured band Trouble Funk.
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What makes the series so compelling isn't just the sights and sounds crammed into an hour of television, but the fact that Grohl has been able to stitch together such disparate genres of music as a means of not only documenting our rich music history (and reminding us of just how vibrant it is in the process), but to emphasize our similarities rather than our differences, some of which are highlighted through interviews with Foo Fighter band members as they go through their own journey of musical discovery.
Sonic Highways will culminate in the release of the Foo Fighters' new album and a companion tour. On 60 Minutes last Sunday, Anderson Cooper spent time with Grohl and the Foos in New Orleans where they took over Preservation Hall during a surprise 90-minute jam session in what appeared to be a rollicking set. And while the series may be raising the profile of the band -- hard to imagine, considering their already massive success -- the obvious aim for Grohl is to generate interest in this country shared musical heritage.
After all, this is clearly a labor of love. There are far easier ways to make a record. It's hard enough to do so in one studio over months of recording, but song by song in eight different studios spread out across the United States, each on a very short timeline and cluttered with interviews and film crews, seems a nearly impossible undertaking. So far, the results have been rather remarkable.
For any true music junkie, this is a must-watch whether you like the Foo Fighters' brand of music or not. Not only is it an incredible education even for the most knowledgeable music fans, but it is damn fun to watch, like a Ken Burns documentary series punctuated with guitar feedback and a whole lot of f-bombs.
Sonic Highways airs for the next six Friday nights on HBO and is also available through the network's HBO GO service.
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