"It's my life's greatest gift to be able to call up these people who I consider my heroes and have them jam with me," said Sound City director Dave Grohl towards the end of Thursday night's South by Southwest set at Stubb's. "I'm the luckiest man in the world."
What could come off as false pride for most preening rock stars was genuine admiration tonight, as Grohl, who earlier that day delivered the music festival's keynote speech, introduced the heroes of his widely acclaimed documentary on Sound City Studios.
Tonight's show felt like a quasi-sequel to Probot, Grohl's 2004 heavy metal side project featuring vocals by Grohl's biggest metal influences (like Motorhead's Lemmy). Rather than the standard one-and-done special guest appearances, the three hour and 20 minute set was more a revue, with each guest getting 30 minutes to combine their most famous songs with new tracks recorded with Grohl for the film's soundtrack.
At 64, age has counterintuitively improved Stevie Nicks' bourbon-and-cigarettes voice, as many of the first-half highlights went to her. The mournful hook of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams." The first verse of "Landslide," which saw Nicks singing over Grohl's acoustic, 12-string guitar accompaniment, silencing a celebratory Friday night crowd. The extended jam in the middle of "Gold Dust Woman" saw Grohl barely hiding a huge grin throughout. "If there's one person who walks it like she talks it...," said Grohl of Nicks.
Praise for Grohl's musical heroes was peppered between each 30-minute set. For each special guest introduced on stage, Grohl eschewed the cliche rock star back-patting, instead explaining with reverence how each guest influenced him growing up. "This record changed my life," he said of 1980s punk band Fear's debut The Record. "It taught me that I could do it myself and didn't need all the bullshit."
With that, Fear frontman Lee Ving appeared to scare the living sh-t out of any non-punk fan. Fear's raison d'être was to be as quick, loud and blisteringly aggressive as possible, succeeding on all counts. Ving's lyrics were simple—don't look too deep into tracks like "More Beer" and "I Don't Care About You"—but he was all throaty rage, with Grohl, guitarist Pat Smear and drummer Taylor Hawkins beaming like 13-year-olds allowed to play with their idol.
Only Grohl would have the audacity to follow Ving with who he affectionately kept calling "Rick f-cking Springfield," he of "Jessie's Girl" fame. Grohl may not be the Rick Rubin to Springfield's Johnny Cash, but melodic hard rock tracks like "Love Is Alright Tonight" and "I've Done Everything for You" had to make a few people reassess Springfield's one-hit wonder status to most casual fans. Sadly, Jimmy Hart was not in attendance.
Veering from the one-guest-at-a-time model for the night, former Nirvana member Krist Novoselic, Slipknot/Stone Sour frontman Corey Taylor and Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen also appeared, relegating Grohl to drums on Cheap Trick's '70s rock staples "I Want you to Want Me" and "Surrender."
For the people around me, at least, guessing the closing act became a parlor game to pass the time between the less memorable moments. Homme? Reznor? McCartney?? As in past shows, Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty finished the night with a seven-song composed mainly of CCR tracks ("Centerfield," his most famous solo track, being a show highlight.) "If there's one guy we looked up to as the meaning of rock 'n roll and integrity, it's this guy," said Grohl. The already-manic CCR hit "Travelin' Band" was sped up to punk levels, while "Born on the Bayou" still inspires and terrifies simultaneously.
Look, the common criticism about SXSW veering further away each year from its goal of promoting independent music is valid. (A list of the biggest names performing at the festival would trump any major music festival.) But the Sound City Players ain't happening every year. When Grohl, Fogerty and Co. rang the last notes to CCR's anti-war anthem "Fortunate Son," it may very well be the last time these musicians will perform together. And if SXSW is truly about diversity, no other show tonight melded so many different genres into one set.