For those who subscribe to HBO, there is a terrific series about American music called “Sonic Highways.” In essence, Dave Grohl and his band the Foo Fighters are traveling to various cities across America that have innovative music scenes. In essence, the Foo Fighters are tracing our musical roots. Thus far, I have seen episodes in Chicago, Seattle, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Austin and each have been wonderful and unique. Each show culminates in the Foo Fighters recording a song in a memorable venue such as Preservation Hall in New Orleans, in Steve Albini’s studio in Chicago or the original television studio for Austin City Limits. I highly recommend you check the series out.
In each of the three shows, they talk with performers who made it big in these locations as well as regionally, nationally and/ or globally. They speak of key influencers early on in the music scene there. So, it is both historical and current. For example, a key reason Seattle has been a big venue for new music is bands from Los Angeles and San Francisco did not like traveling up the coast several hours for only a few gigs. As a consequence, Seattle started its own music scene which culminated with Nirvana’s success, but could trace its roots back to much earlier times.
In Chicago, they spoke at length with Buddy Guy about his career and work with his good friend Muddy Waters. They also spent a lot of time with Rick Nielson, the uniquely fabulous guitarist of Cheap Trick, who tied blues with punk rock and tremendous theater. Nielson actually joined the Foo Fighters on the recording at the end of the show, based on Guy’s quotes called “Something from Nothing.” Albini produced the Nirvana second album where he met Grohl when he was Nirvana’s drummer.
Austin is a melting pot of music from blues to country to rock to all of the above blended together. Musicians from Willie Nelson to Jimmy and Stevie Ray Vaughan to Gary Clark, Jr. to Billy Gibbons to Roky Erickson have graced the city and stages there. Plus some of the more colorful band names like “Thirteenth Floor Elevators,” “Moving Sidewalks” and “The Fabulous Thunderbirds” were spawned there.
Austin City Limits exposed the Austin music scene even further and has been going strong for 40 years. Grohl was amazed the old theater and stage where ACL was filmed and recorded was still in tact and they performed the song for the show there. Grohl was amazed the grand piano that was used for the show was still there behind the seats covered with a tarp. This piano had been played by Fats Domino and many others and there it sat unused.
Like Austin, New Orleans is an amalgamation of different types of music and is where Jazz really got its roots and took off. One of the reasons for the blending of jazz, blues, zydeco, etc. is the eclectic mix of people who were allowed to commingle before it was acceptable in other places. While the venues are many, the Foo Fighters chose to perform at Preservation Hall, which is a tiny and old venue with one of the best house bands around. If you go, you will stand (in line and while listening), but it is worth it.
I look forward to seeing more of these shows. I think they are still filming, but have already recorded versions in Washington, Nashville and New York and maybe other places. Please do yourself a favor and check it out.