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Foo Fighters 'Sonic Highways' Review: Dave Grohl and Co. Go Punk in Chicago in Series Premiere

by Carolyn Menyes   Oct 17, 2014 08:00 AM EDT

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For its eighth studio album, Foo Fighters took on an incredibly ambitious project: to travel across eight major music markets in the United States, interview influential musicians, artists and industry people there and write and record one song in each city. In a fitting follow-up to Dave Grohl's 2013 documentary Sound City, Foo Fighters decided to record this journey and accompany the new album with an HBO series, Sonic Highways.

In the show's premiere episode, which airs tonight (Oct. 17) on HBO, Foo Fighters visit the landmark city of Chicago, but it's not exactly what you'd expect from a visit to the Windy City. Best known, perhaps, for its influential blues scene, it'd be easy for Grohl and his bandmates to focus on that rich cultural history, dissecting and finding influence in the music of Buddy Guy and Chess Records (which released music from the likes of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddle, Muddy Waters and Etta James).

And though Foo Fighters do touch on Chicago's relationship with the blues, Grohl takes a more personal approach in Chicago, rediscovering his own punk rock roots with the help of his cousin Tracey Bradford of the teen punk rock group Verboten.

In an extended conversation with Bradford and a look through her 1980s vinyl collection, you see the real glimmer of inspiration and history in Grohl's eye. Here, you learn that he attended his first real concert in Chicago (Naked Raygun at The Cubby Bear, where the Foos will play a concert tonight) and that's where he found his love of rock 'n' roll.

Yes, like the rest of us (or at least this reviewer), Dave Grohl got into music thanks to a cooler, older friend or family member. Without Bradford's Doc Maartens and band of tweens, it's hard to say if there would even be a Foo Fighters right now.

Next to Bradford and Grohl's punk history, record producer Steve Albini actually gets the most screentime and documenting in the premiere episode.

After graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism, a young Albini moved to Chicago to connect with a music scene... and connect he did. After annoying members of his own favorite bands, Albini eventually formed the raucous and insanely loud punk outfit Big Black. And next thing you know, he's one of the most sought-after rock producers in the game — all with a don't-give-a-crap attitude.

Shoot, Albini wouldn't even show Foo Fighters all of his studio, and in his own words it's just because "F**k you."

Foo Fighters connect with Albini and the insanely underrated Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen to record the lead Sonic Highways single "Something From Nothing" at Albini's Electrical Audio studio. It's the show's biggest moment, a bunch of pure punk and metal rockers in a big room set to write and record some new music — new Foo Fighters music, that is.

The unexpected Chicago focus on punk rock is heard all throughout "Something From Nothing," which debuted online yesterday (Oct. 16). The quiet buildup, the funk rhythms and the eventual pure rock screams and explosion from Grohl have Albini's markings all over them. It's unexpected and it somehow still captures the spirit of Chicago.

If you're looking for a dull history of Chicago music and the blues, turn somewhere else; Sonic Highways is not your mama's docuseries. In the midst of beautiful scenery and some actual personal heart, Sonic Highways has grit and plenty of turns — just like the resulting Foo Fighters music.

Sonic Highways will premiere tonight, Oct. 17, at 11 p.m. EST on HBO. The show will run in the same Friday night timeslot for the next eight weeks.

Sonic Highways the album will be released on Nov. 10.

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