Over nearly six hours, the Foo Fighters invited a vast roster of musical family and friends to honor the late drummer, in a fitting and moving testament to his impact.
Before a single note rang out at Wembley Stadium on Saturday night, it was clear Dave Grohl had already cried. Red-eyed and puffy-faced, Grohl kicked off the Taylor Hawkins Tribute Concert with a speech about the late Foo Fighters drummer while the rest of his bandmates stood by his side. “For those of you who knew him personally, you knew that nobody else could make you smile or laugh or dance or sing like he could,” said Grohl. “For those of you who admired him from afar, I’m sure you’ve all felt the same thing.” If there was anyone watching the livestream who hadn’t paid much attention to Taylor Hawkins prior, it would become clear in a matter of hours, if not minutes, that his death had a far bigger ripple effect on the music community than possibly expected. Soon enough, everyone would be united by a gut-punch moment that probably brought them to tears.
Tribute concerts are a delicate thing. In theory, they’re simple to organize: wrangle together a few people close to the loved one lost and have them perform in their honor. In reality, they can unfurl in a melodramatic, rote, and unfortunately depressing manner. Foo Fighters are undeniably one of the biggest rock bands of this century, and Hawkins was their heartbeat. When honoring him with a nearly six-hour-long concert, the band pulled off a heartfelt homage and an entertaining night simultaneously, bringing to mind the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert they were nodding to when planning their own.
Foo Fighters called upon Hawkins’ friends, collaborators, and even idols to celebrate his life, throwing a concert that was just as much a memorial as it was a party. Watching Hawkins’ cover band Chevy Metal and his side-project the Coattail Riders work through a series of songs, the evening quickly defined itself as the type of event Hawkins himself would’ve loved to attend. The night’s goofier moments, like Brian Johnson and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich playing AC/DC songs with Foo Fighters as the singer from the Darkness wailed, were ridiculous and entertaining, a reminder not to take things too seriously even if you’re some of the most famous names in rock.
The emotional weight of the evening was further driven home by a dozen video messages recorded by musicians who couldn’t attend the tribute concert in person. While artists like Stevie Nicks, Duff McKagan, and Elton John shared kind words memorializing the 50-year-old drummer, it was those who told specific stories that shed light on why Hawkins was deeply loved as a person, not just a musician. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith recounted the time he learned Hawkins secretly purchased drum equipment for children in need on the regular. Grohl admitted the range of artists Hawkins introduced him to, going so far as getting his favorite classic rock act James Gang to reunite for the event and corralling others into performing Jeff Buckley covers together. In place of stories raving about Hawkins’ talent, his friends used the moment to cherish his deep love of music.
Thankfully, the tribute concert never felt like emotional voyeurism, especially when it came to Hawkins’ family themselves. Whenever they appeared onscreen, be it his kids watching side-stage with their legs crossed or his wife smiling beside Hawkins in a photo projected behind the performers, they looked overcome with gratitude—at those willing to honor Hawkins that night, at the love offered in his name, at the joy of a live show after months of private grieving.
It was Grohl’s appearances onstage that were the most heartbreaking. Unlike Hawkins’ family, who feel his absence most as a husband and father, the Foo Fighters feel his absence most onstage as a drummer. It felt like the band was playing from inside a pitch-black well, desperately clawing their way upwards and towards the sunlight outside. For Grohl, the need to adapt to your job so radically in the wake of tragedy is grimly familiar. After Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, Grohl didn’t get to organize a memorial in the singer’s honor or take the time needed to mourn privately. Instead, his grief was immortalized in press cycles and award shows while he and Krist Novoselic were forced to compile a live album commemorating Nirvana’s career. (Fortunately, the studio scrapped it after the two expressed how emotionally overwhelming the process was.)
Watching Grohl repeatedly throw himself into the music at the tribute show was like watching someone throw their weight onto a floatation device while learning how to swim. He darted across the stage all night, swapping instruments like he was trying on clothes: bass with the Pretenders, guitar alongside Paul McCartney, drums with Rush’s Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, then back to bass with Wolfgang Van Halen. It was an act of preoccupation as relatable as it was tragic. As Grohl’s voice cracked and he started wiping away tears reciting “Times Like These” to start their set, you couldn’t help but empathize with everything running through his head. He fluctuated between two modes—yelling and mumble-singing—as a coping mechanism, and looked his most at peace while watching 12-year-old viral drummer Nandi Bushell play “Learn to Fly.”
But it was 16-year-old son Shane Hawkins, Taylor’s son, who stole the show performing “My Hero,” and broke viewers around the world. Each drumstick slammed down harder than the last, tiny punches in a fight to let it all out. During the song’s drum solo, Grohl and Hawkins stared into each other’s eyes like they were on another plane, communicating their shared pain and joy of music at once with no guard up. It was the type of transparent healing that could move even the most straight-faced person to tears. In the days that followed, Foo Fighters received an outpouring of support from artists like Trent Reznor and Paramore who marveled at the performance and recounted how deeply they were moved.
At this point in his career, Grohl is a bonafide entertainer. He’s only happy if he’s left the crowd feeling content with an evening well spent, and he seizes every opportunity to go big: a throne molded out of guitars when a broken leg prevented him from running around onstage, reimagining a longtime classic as a somber reflection in the wake of the pandemic on Saturday Night Live, christening the reopening of Madison Square Garden with tongue-in-cheek karaoke and guilty pleasure cover songs. Not only would Grohl have been forgiven for sobbing at Wembley or breaking down to the point of stopping outright, it was almost expected. Instead, he bit his tongue for the sake of marching onwards. In an era when people are desensitized to tragedy and murder, it spoke volumes that the saddest moments of the tribute concert were those that struggled to not show emotion in the first place. By no means does Grohl embody the type of toxic masculinity that lambasts crying. In this context, his biting back of tears felt like an attempt to give Hawkins the tour de force concert he deserved, free from disruptions and mass pity.
It had already been a long day for Foo Fighters before taking the stage, if only just from the emotional weight settling in across the show’s initial hours that this would be their first performance without Hawkins, but the day deserved to go even longer. Grohl reminded the crowd of that constantly, as if in disbelief himself about how many stars were slated to perform. “It’s going to be a long fucking night,” he would growl into the microphone, his voice filled with pride and heartache. It was like each time Grohl did so, he was speaking to Hawkins specifically, his friend watching in rapture somewhere as love radiated off the massive crowd.