Grohl unplugged sings like a grown-up

ON POPULAR MUSIC

August 10, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

When a loud, riotous hard-rock act goes the acoustic route, it's easy to assume the band has "grown up." The campfire takes are supposed to reveal musical and lyrical "depth" previously obscured by fire-alarm guitars and larynx-shredding screams. Sometimes the mission is accomplished brilliantly. The guys of Nirvana, for example, famously went all-acoustic on 1994's MTV Unplugged in New York. As Kurt Cobain's mental distress at the time simmered in his vocals, the band provided solid, sympathetic backing.

To borrow a phrase from Thelonious Monk, the "ugly beauty" of that record hasn't been matched by any of Nirvana's peers. With his band the Foo Fighters, Dave Grohl, the former drummer for the celebrated grunge group, went all-acoustic on the second half of In Your Honor, a double-disc set released last summer. To support the album, the Foo Fighters are on a national acoustic tour, which stops at DAR Constitution Hall on Tuesday night.

You'd think since Grohl played on perhaps the best unplugged rock set of the '90s that another foray into such musical territory would be riveting. It's not. But In Your Honor, the hard-rock half and the acoustic side, is perhaps one of the band's most consistent sets. That probably has more to do with the clear-cut direction of the album: one disc loud, the other quiet. Although some songs on both CDs meander a bit, others (specifically on the acoustic half) are engaging and beautifully revealing.

"Doing rock acoustically, it's a matter of filling up the song," says Peter Kleet, guitarist for the multi-platinum '90s grunge-pop band Candlebox. "It can be difficult, but it can be very colorful. I think the true colors of the songs are revealed when you unplug."

It is surprising to hear Grohl surrounded by subdued, earth-tone arrangements, crooning pretty melodies as if he's James Taylor or somebody. He even shares the mike with hushed-pop princess Norah Jones on "Virginia Moon," a bossa nova-flavored ditty and a highlight on the sometimes-graceful acoustic disc.

But how does all that strumming and plucking transfer to the stage? After all, Foo Fighters shows aren't known to be sit-down affairs. Folks are usually up guzzling beer, jumping around, banging their heads in time with the beat. Last month, The Daily Californian, the independent student newspaper for the University of California, Berkeley, reviewed the Foo Fighters performance at the Berkeley Community Theater.

"The biggest appeal of the show rested in Grohl's entertaining stage presence and the fact that he now seems to have fully accepted his status as a living pop music relic," the reviewer wrote. "Grohl was not only willing to act out his role as a wandering rock-epic survivor; he also embraced his full-fledged arrival into middle age."

After a decade of screaming as if someone has set his feet on fire, Grohl, 37, may want to ease his fans into a sound that's probably more comfortable for him now. At some point, age won't allow you to do all that hollering and screaming anyway. It makes sense to soften the approach somewhat now, take a break from the demands of delivering wailing, high-octane performances all the time.

"I think most artists get to a point where they want to explore new avenues," says Kleet, whose band's latest release is the 15-track retrospective The Best of Candlebox. "Acoustically, you can hear the personality of the vocalist, all the cracks. It's very open and wide."

And it's sometimes just a nice change of pace.

The Foo Fighters show at DAR Constitution Hall is sold out.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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