Taylor Hawkins was sunshine incarnate. The late Foo Fighters drummer – also a songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist – had an unrivalled sense of positivity and joie de vivre. His megawatt smile could power a stadium show all of its own.
The first of two tribute concerts to Hawkins, who died aged 50 in March this year, does its utmost to summon that same energy. Gathered here at Wembley Stadium are some of Hawkins’s closest friends – the surviving Foos members, of course – family, collaborators and admirers, for a six-hour marathon of a show. Understandably, the mood that fills the 80,000-capacity venue is a strange one. Hawkins’s favourite songs are played ahead of the late-afternoon start time – Abba, ELO, George Michael – but no one feels like dancing just yet.
Foos frontman Dave Grohl arrives on stage with the band to a deafening roar; it’s a few minutes before the cheering stops and he manages to get through his speech. “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight we’ve gathered here to celebrate the life, the music and the love of our dear friend, our bandmate, our brother Taylor Hawkins… So sing and dance and laugh and cry and f***ing scream and make some f***ing noise so he can hear us right now. Cuz you know what, it’s going to be a long f***ing night, right? Are you ready? Are you ready? Are you f***ing ready?”
Kicking off proceedings is Liam Gallagher, the man Hawkins once described as “one of the last great rock stars”. He’s on great form tonight, dressed in a floral parka and with the swagger turned up for performances of “Rock ’n’ Roll Star” and “Live Forever”, backed by the Foos. Controversial comedian Dave Chappelle, who met Hawkins when the band performed on Saturday Night Live, introduces Nile Rodgers and Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme to the stage for a rendition of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”, the duration of which Rodgers bounces up and down as if on springs.
Even now, the crowd reaction is somewhat muted. They watch politely as Gaz Coombes of Supergrass fame leads another Bowie cover (the uplifting “Modern Love”), then as Jason Sudeikis (yes, that one) introduces Hawkins’s Coattail Riders band. Pop singer Kesha livens things up when she sashays onto the stage in leather, studs and chains for a sizzling “Children of the Revolution” by T Rex, yowling and snarling like Patti Smith and Joan Jett’s lovechild. The whole stadium chuckles as she utters a demure little “thank you” as she walks off. Where’s the rock album, Kesha?
It’s possible people are conserving their energy. Justin Hawkins of The Darkness – resplendent in one of several costume changes, this time a glittering silver pantsuit – dances around the stage like a sparkly T rex, arms and legs akimbo. Wolfgang Van Halen, son of the late Eddie Van Halen, demonstrates some serious shredding on “Hot for Teacher”, while Grohl’s 16-year-old daughter Violet accompanies her father for Jeff Buckley’s “Grace”. Coombes returns with Supergrass, one of Hawkins’s favourite bands, for a joyous singalong to “Alright”. There are video tributes from Elton John, Billie Eilish and her brother/producer Finneas, then Chrissie Hynde strides on for some Pretenders and a bit of banter with Grohl. “Is there anything Dave can’t play?” she asks. “Well, he’s married so I can’t find out.” It’s these moments, perhaps more than the music (so far), that put the audience at their ease, reminding them that this is as much a celebration as it is a farewell.
Violet returns – accompanied by Hawkins collaborator Mark Ronson and the fading daylight – for a sweet rendition of “Valerie”. It feels like a tipping point for the show – as the sun dips behind the stadium and the spotlights switch on – when Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich and AC/DC’s Brian Johnson rock up. Both beaming their heads off, they accompany the Foos on a storming “Back in Black”; Johnson growls and splutters and shrieks for all he’s worth. Stuart Copeland of The Police – another of Hawkins’s heroes – joins Coombes for “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic”, the Supergrass frontman’s honks sounding more like Mick Jagger than Sting. We get a Rush thanks to Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson dealing out a swirling, frenetic “2112” and the juggernaut stomp of “Working Man”.
As Grohl promised around three hours in, “we’re just getting started”. Eurovision star Sam Ryder channels Hawkins’s irrepressible nature with Queen and the Foos for “Somebody to Love” (Roger Taylor had the idea after seeing Ryder perform a Queen cover online). Whispers of a Paul McCartney appearance are confirmed when the Beatles legend arrives on stage to perform “Oh! Darling” for the first time since the Fab Four recorded it in 1969. Hawkins’s teenage son Shane steals the show (and so he should) when he takes to the kit for “My Hero”, and viral drumming sensation Nandi Bushell, 12, has a blast with Grohl on “Learn to Fly”. It’s only during a stripped-back moment on “Times Like These”, which opens the Foos’ headlining set, that Grohl is forced to stop, as he breaks down in tears. The thousands-strong crowd erupts in a storm of encouragement and he rallies: “It’s times like these you learn to live again.” It’s one of the most emotional, eclectic and joyous celebrations of rock music in recent memory: a fitting tribute for one of rock’s most beautiful souls.