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'Sonic Highways' review: Foo Fighters on HBO

Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters'

Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters' "Sonic Highways" arrives on HBO Oct. 17 -- the 20th anniversary of the band. Photo Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS / Matt Sayles

 The Foo Fighers, who have almost literally spent the entire week on "Late Show with David Letterman," Friday will finally present their very own rock doc series, "Sonic Highways."  My review...

"Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways," HBO, 11

What it's about: The Foo Fighters, one of the finest rock bands of the last 20 years -- as coincidence would have it -- turn 20 years old today. To commemorate, band leader Dave Grohl took the group on the road to collect a vast trove of music (and stories) from eight cities: Chicago (tonight) Austin, Nashville, Los Angeles, Seattle, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and New York. The guys spent a week in each place, and -- at week's end, after having soaked up the local legends and atmosphere -- craft a song that reflects the core musical values of the region. The first song Friday has already been released, but the eight will comprise a completed album to be released in early November. Grohl explains the genesis of this musical journey in the clip; David Letterman has been a champion of the Foo Fighters for years (and I believe Worldwide Pants is one of the producers too).

My say: "Sonic Highways" may not be for everyone, but those it is for should easily be able to identify themselves from this short list: Foo Fighter fans (duh); anyone who fondly remembers Cheap Trick; and, as a subset of that, anyone who has been wondering what Rick Nielsen looks like as a mature, graying adult after all these years...(As a sidenote, he can still play a mean guitar -- in fact, a few of them, at the same time).

Plus, I think I can add this to the list too: Especially anyone who soaked up and re-soaked up that glorious Greg 'Freddy' Camalier-directed 2013 rock doc, "Muscle Shoals."

"Sonic HIghways" in fact shares some stuff in common with "Shoals," but most notably a  core belief that American music emerges out of the very ground, like some magical mystical force that is utterly unique to that sacred soil.

Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where Rick Hall's Fame Studios, is based, has that distinction. Chicago, Illinois, where so much great American music has been born, has that distinction as well.

Famed Chicago music impresario Marshall Chess initially kind of plays the role that Hall did in "Shoals" -- as the wise elder who shaped that Chicago sound in the late '50s and '60s, as protege to blues gods like Buddy Guy (also interviewed tonight), and who then went on to influence so many others, including Bonnie Raitt.

You're left with a sense that Chess effected a kind of  domino reaction, and that before too long, a kaleidoscopic landscape of musical glory took shape, from Naked Raygun (which gets major prominence tonight) through to Wilco or James Murphy's singular LCD Soundsystem (Murphy is also interviewed.)

Steve Albini, one of rock's most esteemed recording engineers (his studio, Electrical Audio, is based in Chicago) largely picks up where Chess leaves off -- as the pied piper of this musical scene over the last quarter century or so. Albini -- wry, profane, and obviously brilliant -- could easily soak up the whole hour, He's fascinating...

But here's the problem with "Sonic Highways" and it's not an insignificant one from the standpoint of the viewing experience: Grohl, who directs, is a restless wanderer. He wants to cover so much of that Chicago ground (and in some instances re-cover it) that "Sonic Highways" starts to lose focus, meander, then drift.  It becomes -- like that kid in that proverbial candy store -- easily distracted, not quite sure how much focus to apply where or when -- or how deeply to  explore certain ideas. (For example, just how relevant the blues antecedents might actually be on the '70s punk scene, if at all.)

Plus Grohl barely explores the current music scene -- other than LCD Soundsystem which was from New York anyway. You're almost left with the sense that everything ended with the Bhopal Stiffs in the '80s.

Of course, this is his road trip and he's allowed to include who he wants to (and the band did only spend a week.)  Still...

Bottom line: Fun, lively, interesting, but also tends to lose focus at times. The final song, "Something From Nothing," has that requisite Foo Fighter roar. It's a good one.

Grade: B +

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