The Foo Fighters have transformed the release of their album/documentary hybrid Sonic Highways into an event. The eight-part series premieres on HBO tonight, followed by a live performance of the band’s lead single, “Something from Nothing.” To prep for that debut, Dave Grohl and the gang have spent the week collaborating with other musicians on CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman.
While the Foos will have one final performance tonight, they have already banked five impressive outings. Here they are, ranked from least to most rockin’, based on actual quality, the guest musician, and the level of Grohl in each song.
5. “War Pigs”
What should have been a highlight of the week is unfortunately brought down by sheer messiness. Lyrics are fumbled from the start, and neither Grohl nor Zac Brown’s vocals sound right for the song, at least in this performance. Chris Shiflett gets a few moments to show off his guitar skills, but the band in general seems to be out of sync. Blame it on opening-night jitters. Or Zac Brown’s beard.
Guest rating: Brown performs admirably enough, but botching the words right from the start throws the entire performance off.
Grohl factor: There’s plenty of him, but it’s not Grohl at his best. He starts off singing too high, but he gets a pass because watching him rock out while Brown plays reserved next to him is visually hilarious.
An online exclusive performance, the band played “Miracle” because of its personal resonance for Letterman. Tying the song to memories of the host with his son sets a sweet tone for the week’s most reserved track. The mixing throws things off, with the keyboard perhaps a bit too loud, though. It’s no acoustic version of “Everlong,” but every concert needs its slower moments.
Guest rating: The performance is 100 percent Foo, but Letterman’s introduction infuses the song with a bit more meaning.
Grohl Factor: Dave Grohl shows his sensitive side to remind you he’s not just a messy mane of head-banging hair. He’s also a father.
3. “Kick It Out”
The Foos let Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson take center stage for a driving version of one of Heart’s less commercially successful but still enjoyable tracks. Ann Wilson’s powerful vocals lead an all-around fun, if straightforward, performance.
Guest rating: Nancy Wilson plays things quiet, occasionally stepping in for background vocals with her sister, but Ann Wilson seriously brings it. She sounds as good as she did when the band was in its prime–maybe she has another album or two left in here?
Grohl factor: Grohl fades into the background, rocking out near Taylor Hawkins on drums. But he channels his inner Cousin Itt for the performance—throw in Zac Brown’s hat from earlier in the week with Paul Shaffer’s shades, and the impersonation would be flawless.
2. “Stiff Competition”
Rick Nielsen, who lent his talents to “Something from Nothing,” joins the Foo Fighters for a performance of his band’s hit “Stiff Competition.” This collaboration jumps a full notch higher on the list solely for Taylor Hawkins’ all-white suit. Looking like an extra from Saturday Night Fever, Hawkins trades in sticks for a microphone, taking over frontman duties while Grohl returns to drums.
Guest rating: Nielsen doesn’t quite channel the antics of his earlier performing days, some of which can be glimpsed in the Sonic Highways premiere, but he and Hawkins dominate the song, suitably bringing the Cheap Trick sound into the Foo fold.
Grohl factor: Grohl drives the song from behind the kit, but lets Hawkins, whose vocals suited the song more than Grohl’s may have, rock out on the mic.
1. “Polk Salad Annie”
The best performance of the week came at the perfect time: smack in the middle of the Foo Fighters’ residence. Every aspect of “Polk Salad Annie” is on point. Everyone seems to be in sync and enjoying themselves, Grohl’s skills jibing with the track more so than on “War Pigs.” And legend Tony Joe White rocks out on guitar, harmonica, and the mic. Add in a few members of the CBS Orchestra, and the Foos deliver one of late-night television’s best performances in recent weeks.
Guest rating: Tony Joe White wrote the song, so it’s no surprise his presence elevates the performance. But his distorted guitar and playful harmonica additions push the song to another level. And really, listening to him sing just about anything in that low tone would be enjoyable.
Grohl factor: Grohl never tries to steal White’s thunder, instead enjoying the chance to play alongside one of the greats. He soaks in the moment, often playing directly in White’s direction while harmoniously connecting with his fellow bandmates.
Bonus: Grohl has spent years doing the late-night circuit at CBS, and his and Hakwins’ intentionally botched rendition of “Stairway to Heaven” on The Late Late Show is still one of his most entertaining.