Column | Ohio Rock Royals Join Forces for Veterans Concert

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The lineup for Sunday’s VetsAid concert in Columbus – Joe Walsh and the James Gang, Nine Inch Nails, The Black Keys and The Breeders, with special guest Dave Grohl – had enough firepower for a major weekend-long rock festival.

But the 15,000 or so fans who crowded into Nationwide Arena saw them all in a six-hour span, with each playing a condensed set of less than an hour that included every hit in their repertoire.

It was a Super Bowl of Ohio Rock, because each act’s roots are in the Buckeye State.

NIN frontman Trent Reznor, who is actually from Mercer, Pa., launched his career in Cleveland; Joe Walsh calls Columbus his hometown and cut his teeth in Kent; The Breeders are led by Dayton native Kim Deal; The Black Keys are from Akron; and Dave Grohl, of course, was born in Warren and spent a lot of time there as a child.

It’s impressive how strong of a lineup Ohio was able to muster – probably better than most states. It could have also included The Pretenders, The Afghan Whigs, The National,  Twenty-One Pilots and Guided by Voices.

After deadline, I’m going to put together fantasy rock’n’roll lineups for other states and see how they compare.

Much like its counterpart, FarmAid – led by Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews – VetsAid takes place in a different city each year. The only difference is, VetsAid is indoors.

Walsh knows the needs of veterans and their families. When he was a boy, his father – who was in the Air Force – died in a plane crash.  Walsh started VetsAid in 2017 and is the only constant each year – although the lineup is always fantastic. As Trent Reznor put it, when Joe Walsh asks, you don’t say no.

I don’t have many bands remaining on my concert bucket list, but Nine Inch Nails was one of them.

I almost saw them last year at Nautica, when I paid $400 for a ticket in my first tangle with Ticketmaster’s dynamic pricing system.

I was kind of glad when that concert was canceled and I got my money back.

Even with its abbreviated length, Sunday’s NIN concert was as intense as you’d expect from the band. The act didn’t skimp on production values, filling the stage with banks of strobe lights and fog guns.

Their nine-song set started with a blistering “Wish,” and ended with “The Hand that Feeds” and “Head Like a Hole,” before returning for an encore – a cathartic rendition of “Hurt” that befit a concert for warriors.

I’ve never been a big Black Keys fan, and the performance by Dan Auerbach, Patrick Carney & Co. at VetsAid did not change my mind.

This isn’t the time or place to knock a band just for choosing to be dependable, and The Keys’ hit-laden set was pretty great. But I agree with those who say this act hasn’t evolved much and no longer generates excitement.

Joe Walsh, on the other hand, always sounds fresh. He’s a master of guitar riffs and can still summon them with a precision that turns back the hands of time.

At 74, he’s an elder statesman of rock, but with the cantankerous nature of one who’s seen it all. His stage banter is hilarious, sometimes unintentionally so, and his singing voice remains strong – even when it charmingly lags his own guitar playing.

I was uncertain of exactly what Dave Grohl’s role was going to be at the show. As it turned out, it was sparse but noteworthy.

Grohl – who reportedly was in Warren earlier in the day – was the special sauce, kicking things up a notch by joining in on a song every now and then on guitar, drums or  backing vocals.

But he did not perform solo, and no Foo Fighters songs were played. I don’t recall him even saying anything to the crowd.

In his first appearance, he wielded that gigantic blue guitar of his with The Breeders, appropriately on “Gigantic.” Kim Deal co-wrote the song, which was recorded during her days with The Pixies, and sings the lead.

Grohl returned to play drums on Walsh’s second set of the night. It was a grand finale that lived up to its hype and included “In the City,” “Turn to Stone,” “Life’s Been Good” and “Rocky Mountain Way.”

Even with his limited stage time, watching Grohl play guitar and drums was one of the biggest highlights for me. It was the first time I saw him perform live, and I was impressed.

He’s a big dude who lords over his drum kit with a jubilant frenzy, banging away with violent precision and athleticism. I consider him to be one of the greatest rock drummers of all time.

But I didn’t get to cross The Foos off of my concert bucket list.

 Youngstown was also represented at VetsAid – in an indirect way – during The Breeders’ set. In introducing “Drivin’ on 9,” Deal pointed out that the song was co-written by the late Dom Leone of Youngstown. It was originally recorded by Leone’s band, Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, and later by The Breeders.

Leone graduated from Youngstown schools and attended Youngstown State University. He died of cancer in 1989 at age 29.

Another Ohio icon, the Ohio State University marching band – aka, The Best Damn Band in the Land – was also on the bill, and I doubt anyone saw them coming. They opened the concert with their signature song, “Hang On, Sloopy” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Cleveland native Drew Carey was originally penciled in as the show’s host, but the comedian and TV personality came down with COVID and had to bow out.

Walsh’s son, Christian, stepped in as emcee, handing the mic to veterans between sets to demonstrate where the money raised at VetsAid will go. To donate to VetsAid (or buy a concert T-shirt), go to vetsaid.org.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.