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Slane Festival: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Queens Of The Stone Age, PJ Harvey, Feeder

Peter Murphy, 28 Aug 2003

It wasn’t a good day for drummer jokes. Dave Grohl, Joey Castillo, Graham Hopkins, Taylor Hawkins, Chad Smith . . . Slane 03 was, amongst other things, a masterclass in advanced beat science, with the dress rehearsal having taken place at the previous night’s SFX workshop.

As you join us, Feeder have just put the seal on a politely received set, and we’re wondering how the nocturnal creature that is Polly Jean Harvey will fare in the bare naked daylight. Well, she’s obviously learned a thing or two at the last few Big Days Out. Minutes before she walked onstage in a thigh-length white dress and fuck-off black boots, the White Stripes’ ‘Black Math’ had blared from the big screens, and Polly’s opener, the crawling-on-its-belly blues of ‘To Bring You My Love’, served to remind the congregation that Jack and Meg are neither first nor last in their Delta excavations, and Karen O didn’t lick that caterwaul off the stones. Plus, I’ll be damned if that wasn’t Bad Seed Mick Harvey multi-tasking on guitar and keyboards, switching to bass as PJ ripped into ‘Dress’, ‘50 Foot Queenie’, ‘Good Fortune’ and ‘Rid Of Me’.

But really, it was the Queens Of The Stone Age’s day. The band are so road-drilled by this stage I pity any act that has to follow them onstage, and apart from anything else, they look fucking amazing, moving in formation like classic Clash: Nick as some wretched desert rodent weaned on psychotropic cactus juice, Troy a mafia whacker, Castillo the circus strongman, Josh as Elvis-on-acid and Mark Lanegan as the ghost who walks. ‘A Song For The Dead’ took us on a road trip that stretched from Hendrix to Sabbath to Black Flag, Lanegan singing like a man with corpses in his mouth. ‘Feelgood Hit Of The Summer’ (with Guinness being added to the litany of stimulants) and ‘No-One Knows’ hammered it home: somewhere between Borges and Beavis & Butthead, the Queens are the greatest live hard rock band on the planet.

After that, the Foo Fighters couldn’t help but come across as more rock mechanic than messianic. Course, it didn’t help that this was the band’s fourth Irish appearance in little more than a year, and true, the first half hour did exhibit moments of greatness, especially ‘Times Like These’, a tune that seems to hypothesise what would’ve happened if The Cult’s Billy Duffy joined Husker Du for a day. Also, Taylor Hawkins is a joy to watch, one of the most graceful and athletic drummers on the circuit – if someone did a 3D computer scan of his upper torso, it’d probably come out in the shape of some ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic key to the universe. Some of the tunes, notably ‘Stacked Actors’ and ‘Monkey Wrench’, have put on a little surplus weight on tour, and are starting to sag under extended sections, embellishments and musical love handles, but ultimately the Foo Fighters triumphed by virtue of the public vote.

And so, to the Chili Peppers. First off, you have to hand it to a band that are loose and confident enough to walk out in front of 80,000 people and fuck around with a brief jam before launching into their opening tune (the hymnal ‘By The Way’). They could scarcely have played a smarter first hour, pumping out the hits, juggling physical comedy (mainly between Anthony and a skeleton-suited Flea) with substantial songcraft. I’ve said this before, but in John Frusciante they have an amazing musician, a man who looks like a vagrant and sings like an choirboy (check out the harmonies on ‘Scar Tissue’ and ‘Universally Speaking’, not to mention that Franki Valli doo-wop solo spot and a quick-time jam of Summer/Moroder’s ‘I Feel Love’, with Flea’s four fingers replicating entire banks of synthesizers).

But am I the only one who thinks they really need a rhythm guitarist to fill out those mid-frequencies when Frusciante essays his piercing cry-baby solos? Sure, the little guy’s playing is elegant as hell, but at crucial points when he switches to lead, the arse falls out of the thing. And I gotta tell you, they lost me for a good 15 minutes when they should’ve been cranking up the heat on the home run. Individual performances of The Ramones’ ‘Havana Affair’ and their own ‘Don’t Forget Me’ were faultless, but strung together they cost the band in terms of forward thrust, an impetus not regained until ‘Give It Away’ and the inevitable ‘Californication’ et al. The encores saved the day, but for a while there I was pondering Tennessee Williams’ line about life being a fairly well written play with a poor third act.

But hey, it’s rock ‘n’ roll, not rocket science.

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