The Sonic Highways project wound up being a much better documentary series than a studio album. Consisting of eight different episodes exploring some of the most important musical cities in the United States, Dave Grohl and the band trek to those cities to explore the sights and sounds while taking in a bit of history from the legendary musicians who made their names in those places.
And, amid their travels, the Foo Fighters also recorded some songs along the way. Grohl’s big idea was to let the cities and their unique qualities inform the songs, but he just wound up cherry-picking quotes from each city’s famous residents that he got in interviews, haphazardly shoehorned them into the lyrics, and hoped they would make some kind of poetic sense. Grohl was never the world’s greatest lyricist, but when he’s working in his zone, he’s quite accomplished. This exercise is way outside his grasp and it shows.
That’s why none of the album’s songs have had any legs on the band’s subsequent tours. Do you know how many songs Foo Fighters played at their various shows in 2021? Approximately 60 different tracks. Do you know how many were from Sonic Highways? A big fat zero. The last time any of the tracks from Sonic Highways was played live was back in September of 2019 when the Foos busted out ‘Congregation’ in Franklin, Tennessee, just outside the song’s origin city of Nashville.
But the album’s songs aren’t all complete failures. Sure, tracks like ‘Where Did I Go?/God As My Witness’, ‘The Feast and the Famine’, and ‘In the Clear’ were kind of just generic Foo Fighters songs on first listen, but other tracks like ‘Something From Nothing’ and ‘I Am A River’ sounded like the band were really stretching themselves. One of the most successful songs is Los Angeles’ ‘Outside’, where the major chorus hook and desert-scorched sound do the heavy lifting over some typically ham-fisted lyricism.
But it’s in the song’s guitar solo that ‘Outside’ really distinguishes itself. Part of the gimmick of Sonic Highways was that a notable musician from each city would guest on a track. Zac Brown played on Nashville’s ‘Congregation’, Ben Gibbard sang on Seattle’s ‘Subterranean’, and when it came to Los Angeles, the band tapped wild man guitar player Joe Walsh, whose time in the Eagles made him a California legend.
Sure, Walsh is originally from Detroit, but we’re not splitting hairs because Walsh is one of the only guest musicians to provide a truly inspired performance. Walsh was given an entire minute and a half section to do his thing, because as Taylor Hawkins put it, “If you’re gonna have Joe Walsh on your album, you’re not gonna just give him four bars. You’re gonna give him 40 bars and take us out into the fuckin’ desert man”.
But instead of coming out of the gate hot, Walsh lets the space remain open for the first eight bars, effectively giving Nate Mendel a brief solo all his own. When he does come in, he starts off sparse, playing a few licks that hang in the air and don’t rush to come fast and furious. As the energy continues to ramp up, Walsh builds with the band, climaxing in a furious string of high fretboard bends that lead into the songs final chorus. It’s a great lesson in subtlety and lack of ego, contributing to a song’s arrangement without putting the spotlight on yourself.
Watch Walsh work on ‘Outside’ with the Foo Fighters down below.