Preservation Hall, stated the sign on the door, was closed this week for a “private event.” But when that event culminated in a surprise show by the Foo Fighters, it wouldn’t stay private for long.
On Saturday (May 17), the Foo Fighters, a rock band that normally fills arenas and even stadiums, capped off several days of recording at Preservation Hall with a blowout that shut down the 700 block of St. Peter Street.
The Foo Fighters are writing and recording songs for their eighth album by visiting cities with rich musical traditions, including Chicago, Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles and now New Orleans. Frontman Dave Grohl is also directing an HBO series about the process.
The band rented Preservation Hall as its New Orleans headquarters. A temporary studio – with analog, rather than digital, recorders – was installed in an office behind the Hall’s courtyard, manned by Butch Vig, the famed producer and co-founder of the band Garbage. Grohl wrote lyrics for the designated New Orleans song after immersing himself in the city – and interviewing various musicians — for days.
In recent years, Preservation Hall’s creative director and tuba player, Ben Jaffe, has cultivated relationships with the mainstream rock world. My Morning Jacket, Robert Plant, Tom Waits and U2’s The Edge have spent time at the Hall. During the recently completed New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the Alabama Shakes played a surprise midnight show there.
But no band as popular as the Foo Fighters has taken over the Hall so completely – or made as loud of a statement about it.
The Foo Fighters were not the only marquee act in town Saturday. Country star Kenny Chesney played an acoustic set at the House of Blues during a fundraiser for Drew Brees’ charity. At the Sugar Mill in the Warehouse District, Brad Pitt‘s Make It Right Foundation hosted a fundraising gala with Bruno Mars, Kings of Leon and Chris Rock.
Those events, with their high-dollar tickets, were announced and advertised well in advance. The Foo Fighters went guerilla-style for their first New Orleans appearance since the 2012 Jazz Fest.
On Saturday, the band tweeted a picture of Grohl with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s Charlie Gabriel and Freddie Lonzo, along with the teaser, “So…NOLA, what’re you guys up to tonight?”
That hint, and word of mouth, was enough to generate a crowd outside Preservation Hall. First it filled the sidewalks on either side of St. Peter. By showtime, cars could barely squeeze through.
Eventually, the street was shut down. But not the show.
Just after 9 p.m., the members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band marched from the back courtyard through the carriageway to the main music room, which had been altered for the occasion.
Strands of lights were strung from the ceiling. The cushions and benches on which patrons sit were removed to make room for the Foo Fighters’ gear, and two drum kits – one for Pres Hall’s Joe Lastie, the other for the Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins.
And the room was reversed. Generally, musicians perform with their backs to St. Peter Street. On Saturday, they faced the street, playing to the general public through two sets of open shutters and French doors.
Only invited guests and VIPs – Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Régine Chassagne; Anderson Cooper, collecting footage for a “60 Minutes” Foo Fighters profile – were allowed inside. They jockeyed for sightlines through one of two doorways leading from the carriageway into the music room.
Grohl, who first came to fame as Nirvana’s drummer, and Hawkins sat on the floor to watch Preservation Hall’s Joe Lastie work.
Butler and Chassagne, still hanging out in town following their May 4 Jazz Fest gig, have a history with Preservation Hall. At southern California‘s Coachella Festival in April, the Pres Hall band marched Arcade Fire off the stage. On Saturday, Butler and Chassagne joined them for “Iko Iko.”
After 30 minutes of Preservation Hall, it was the Foo Fighters’ turn. They cranked out arena-size anthems in a far smaller space, while still swinging for the fences. Watching them through a doorway was like peering into their rehearsal room.
Their 90 minute-set was heavy on greatest hits: “Times Like These.” “Monkey Wrench.” ‘The Pretender.” “Cold Day in the Sun,” sung by Hawkins. “My Hero,” at the end of which Grohl wrested a barricade away from a French door so he could press up against the people outside.
In the crush on St. Peter Street, spectators crowd-surfed, or stood on parked cars to get a better view. A member of the local band The Breton Sound, watching from the sidewalk near a door, supplied Foo Fighters guitarist Pat Smear with a cigarette.
After the relatively sedate “Big Me,” Grohl was ready to rock out again. “Do you mind if we play some loud music? I like loud music.”
With that, “Learn to Fly” took flight, followed by a raging “These Days,” with three fully amped electric guitars across the band’s front line.
Resa Lambert is Ben Jaffe’s aunt and the mother of Preservation Hall production manager Howard Lambert. She worked for Preservation Hall for more than 40 years, road managing the band and collecting money at the door.
On Saturday, for the first time ever, she wore earplugs inside Preservation Hall. And she was impressed.
During “Skin & Bones,” Lastie joined in with the Foo Fighters. In his white shirt and black vest and tie, he bashed away next to a shirtless Hawkins for a double-drum duel. He’d never played a full drum kit with a rock band before. He loved it.
Grohl was especially gracious all evening. “This time, I feel like we really have gotten it right,” he said of the band’s rolling recording project. “We stayed here long enough so we learned a little bit about the city. We made a lot of friends.”
They included the bartenders at Yo Mama’s, a watering hole across St. Peter. Grohl and company apparently visited often. “We recommend the spiked lemonade. It’s like a Slurpee from hell – the devil’s Slurpee.”
During their cross-country recording odyssey, “we’ve been to a lot of great places, we’ve jammed with a lot of great people,” Grohl said. “But this week in this city has changed our band forever.”
As if to prove his point, as the final “This Is A Call” built to a finish, he made eye contact with Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, who was watching from the carriageway.
Already on Saturday, Andrews had performed at the Hangout Festival in Gulf Shores, Ala., and at the Make It Right event at the Sugar Mill. He stopped by Preservation Hall thinking he would catch a few minutes of the show before heading home to bed.
But Grohl, who had interviewed Andrews earlier in the week, had other plans: “Troy, you bring your horn?”
He hadn’t – he’d left it in his car. But Andrews borrowed a Preservation Hall trombone and inserted himself into the mix, along with Jaffe on tuba, Clint Maedgen on saxophone and Lastie as the second drummer.
Andrews blew hard through a long solo. Then he, Grohl, Maedgen and Jaffe faced each other, riffing, probing, seeking and finding common ground in a grand vamp. Grohl finally concluded it with a leap off a piano bench. Nothing, he correctly surmised, could follow that.
Afterward, the courtyard filled with happy and/or relieved musicians, staffers and guests. Chassagne marveled at the final guitar/brass jam. Howard Lambert marveled at what might have shook loose from the Hall’s ancient walls. “It’ll be interesting to sweep up tomorrow and see what fell down.”
Standing astride a bicycle, Hawkins dialed back Grohl’s heat-of-the-moment pronouncement about the New Orleans sojourn changing the Foo Fighters “forever”: “We’re not going to become a zydeco band.”
That said, “We may have learned a new lick or two this week. Everywhere we go changes us. The thing about this place, and Austin, is that there is music everywhere.”
There was even more – and more volume – than usual at Preservation Hall.
“That’s how we do it!” Jaffe exclaimed to Andrews, who has performed at Preservation Hall since he was child.
“I had never played rock music in here before,” Andrews said. “I thought the walls were gonna come down.”
He smiled, exhausted but elated. “That was wonderful.”
By Keith Spera