This past Saturday, the most epic one-day rock festival of 2017 took place at the Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino. Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl brought back the old Cal Jam festival, once headlined in the ’70s by acts like Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Grohl curated the Cal Jam 17 lineup himself, bringing along friends and peers like Queens of the Stone Age, The Kills, Cage the Elephant, Liam Gallagher, and several others.
With Coachella positioned to roll out a lineup next year devoid of any rock n roll headliners for the first time in the festival’s history, we need more of these guitar-driven festivals to sprout up as festivals begin to lean heavier into pop and electronic music. The festival didn’t feel too packed until the Foo Fighters took the stage, then I looked around and saw how packed it was all the way to the top of the amphitheater.
Cal Jam 17 was the first festival I attended since the senseless tragedy that took place at a country music festival in Las Vegas. It happened a week after I was in Vegas for Life is Beautiful, and there were reports that the gunman had rented property overlooking that festival as well. It wasn’t until the Foo Fighters were on stage that I had about 30 seconds of anxiety and looked around, and I saw a couple of security forces on top of the rook of the amphitheater with binoculars looking into the crowd. This is the reality we all must accept as music fans have been targeted heavily in attacks over the past 24 months.
During Queens of the Stone Age, singer Josh Homme grabbed a sign from the crowd that said VEGAS STRONG with the names of all the people who tragically lost their lives on the other side of the sign. “We are nothing when we are apart, we are everything when we are together,” Homme declared as he held the sign to the crowd. Every band at Cal Jam 17 provided a constant reminder why we continue to gather in large numbers to experience live music.
Here’s what I found to be the Best and Worst of Cal Jam 17.
BEST: Foo Fighters don’t hold back in marathon headline set
It’s pretty nuts the Foo Fighters have never headlined Coachella before. Anyone who has ever seen Grohl and Co. play before knows they deliver one of the highest-energy and most explosive rock shows out there, night in and night out. For Cal Jam 17, they pulled out all of the stops. You almost forgot how many fucking hits these guys have, and then they play one after another.
The band played five songs from their new album Concrete and Gold, which just dropped a few weeks ago. They brought out Alison Mosshart from The Kills for a rousing rendition of new song “La Dee Da”, Mosshart seemingly having the time of her life on stage. Grohl even Rickrolled the crowd as Rick Astley came out and did “Never Gonna Give You Up”, and then Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry came out for a cover of “Draw the Line”. They played “Come Together” with Liam Gallagher singing, Perry on guitar, and Greg Kurstin on keys before wrapping up with “Everlong”. It was the kind of set that would have fit perfectly at a Coachella, and one wonders if the band will ever get their chance to top that bill.
WORST: Concessions were way overpriced
Four dollars for a regular-sized bottle of water when it’s 95 degrees is obscene. I saw multiple people pass out in big crowds, and one wonders if water was only a couple bucks, how preventable that could have been. Also, a decent craft beer was $17 or so, and the food was delicious but also a bit overpriced. The demographic leaned a bit older, and I witnessed quite a few families. Feeding a family of four at Cal Jam 17 would have run you probably in the ballpark of $60.
BEST: Liam Gallagher is still a fucking Rock N Roll Star
Oasis was the first concert I ever saw when I was 17 years old, and they’ve long been one of my favorite bands. Seeing Liam Gallagher on the bill for Cal Jam 17 was a big reason I decided to go. His new album dropped just the day before, and I went into his set only having heard the pretty solid single “Wall of Glass”. When Liam took the stage to the Oasis track “Fuckin’ In the Bushes”, it was like nothing had changed. He launched right into “Rock N Roll Star” and it was one of the biggest singalongs of the weekend, everyone around me was geeking out just as much as I was.
Liam kept walking to the side stage area, later saying “Did you think I was gonna go off?” Liam asked, referencing how he cut his Lollapalooza set short earlier this year. “Seeing as we came all this way and you’re kinda cool, we’re gonna do a song you never heard before,” before playing “Wonderwall”. He played the crowd perfectly, and the new songs seemed to connect with the crowd most of the time.
BEST: Wolf Alice one of many undercard bands who put best foot forward
The one beautiful thing about an all rock music festival, is the bands playing earlier in the day are playing to crowds that are much likelier to be into their music. Bands like Wolf Alice, White Reaper, Bully, Japandroids and The Struts didn’t have to play to a stage full of EDM kids waiting for their acts to come on later in the day. Each of these bands relished the opportunity to play to a crowd comprised of fans of guitars. These bands usually had between 30 and 45 minutes and they made the most out of every minute. Wolf Alice shredded through a set of about a dozen songs, leaning heavily on their new album Visions of a Life, one of the year’s best records. White Reaper had a very Thin Lizzy feel to them and the crowd filled out over the course of their 30-minute set. Even cooler was seeing members of these bands in the regular crowd during Queens of the Stone Age — they’re fans just like us and got to play on the same bill as some of their favorites.
Five Best Songs of Cal Jam 17:
- Foo Fighters – “Learn to Fly” — Dave Grohl and Co. took their set to monumental heights right out of the gate, kicking into this late ’90s hit just three songs into their set. It was one of the biggest singalongs of the entire day and it felt as though it was a song everyone really needed to hear after a rough week. The crescendos in this song are hard to match, it was like riding a rollercoaster.
- Cage the Elephant – “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” — Tom Petty was on every fan’s brain when they stepped foot at Cal Jam 17. There’s no doubt a lot of the bands playing the bill were influenced by the legendary rocker, and Cage the Elephant paid their respects with a rousing rendition of one of Petty’s greatest hits. Who knew Matt Shultz was such a solid harmonica player? They did Tom proud.
- Liam Gallagher – “Rock N Roll Star” — My life was changed when I saw Oasis at my first ever concert when I was 17. Liam Gallagher helped me step into a time machine and travel back to that moment when he launched into his former band’s big hit, and my face hurt from smiling and singing so damn loudly.
- Wolf Alice – “Yuk Foo” — I was on the rail for the first 30 minutes of Wolf Alice before darting off to catch Liam Gallagher. I’ve been listening to their new record nonstop and was next to a mom and her college-aged daughter. The mom wasn’t familiar with the band but by the time the punk as fuck “Yuk Foo” kicked in, she was a big fan. Lead singer Ellie Rowsell is a force to be reckoned with and the way she screams during this track had the packed crowd raging pretty hard.
- Queens of the Stone Age – “Feet Don’t Fail Me” — I’ve been listening to the new QOTSA album a bunch the last month or so and this is the standout track of the record in my opinion. I was surprised how many people were already familiar with all the new material, but this was the song that got the crowd rocking.
Cal Jam 17 illustrated the need for more of these rock-specific music festivals. Band got to play to crowds that weren’t waiting for Skrillex or Kaskade to come on afterwards, arms folded or looking at their phones. There was a level of respect for every band on the stage, even if their specific brand of rock didn’t appeal to you. Maybe this is the best way to help breed new rock fans. I’m not sure Cal Jam 17 was successful enough to warrant a return next summer, but perhaps the Foo Fighters can bring it back around the time of their next album cycle. It has to be considered one of the dopest album-release concerts of all-time.
All photos courtesy of Debi Del Grande // @debidelgrande