Foo Fighters @ Goat Island, Sydney (24/3/2011)

“If your favourite rock band only play an hour twenty, they suck! If your favourite rock band only play an hour fourty-five, they fucking suck!”

Foo Fighters have a reputation in Australia as the most audience-devoted, hard-working of rockstars, and it’s built on nights like tonight – a promo gig turned marathon set. And this arena-rock romance has seen their consistent visits rewarded with equally consistent sold-out shows, fawning media attention and a huge Australian following. Frontman Dave Grohl’s reputation as one of mainstream rock’s nicest frontmen doesn’t hurt either – genuinely kind gestures like hanging out with trapped miners and playing disaster benefits have afforded him some well-earned respect.

So in Australia, Foo Fighters are a big deal. By extension, an album release is also a big deal, with big gestures to generate big buzz. And they don’t come much bigger than a one-off show on the edge of an island, with the Sydney Harbour Bridge as a backdrop. And so a few hundred media, industry and lucky competition winners found themselves aboard a ferry en route to Goat Island to see Foo Fighters perform their forthcoming record Wasting Light in full.

With the album opening the set, it’s hard to tell whether it’s a record that gets better as it goes on, or whether the group just needed time to loosen up. The front half of the album was stacked with meat-and-potatoes rock, which will thrill some but generally finds the group playing it too safe. But thankfully it gets better, with the Queens Of The Stone Age-esque single White Limo bringing in a better run of songs that continues to improve – the closing duo of I Should Have Known and Walk are the album’s best tracks.

You can usually predict the narrative of a promo gig like this – short and succinct, with the band playing through an arsenal of new material with a few crowd pleasers sprinkled in. Maybe a few more old favourites for shows like tonight’s, where there are TV cameras and competition winners to charm. But Foo Fighters had other ideas, immediately launching into an extended greatest-hits set that seemed to take everyone – from the label and industry folks upstairs to the devoted riff-raff downstairs and the television cameras putting everything to tape – by surprise.

And so the band tore through over an hour of hits, beginning with a thunderous All My Life that brought the placid crowd to life, and ending with Everlong – a highlight of the show and arguably the band’s best song. In between, a jammed-out Stacked Actors saw Grohl move through the crowd and up to the balcony, a Grohl lookalike was brought onstage and serenaded with Up In Arms, and huge singles like My Hero, Learn To Fly, Monkey Wrench and Big Me thrilled the crowd.

That was just the main set. The encore became an endurance test, with five songs getting an airing before what would usually be a ridiculous request – for ten more songs – was actually taken on by the band. It seemed entirely impromptu, and made for some fun choices – Prince’s Darling Nikki got covered, and seldom-played tracks like See You and Butterflies were spontaneously played on stage.

And that’s where the group really shone – out of their comfort zone, and revelling in it. While a strictly-enforced curfew at the three hour mark stopped the group a couple of songs short of their ten song target, it was hard to complain, especially when they ended with the underrated Aurora and closer-of-choice This Is A Call.

If anything, such a huge set overshadowed the new album that they were playing in support of, doing a much better job of suggesting their place as a legendary act than pushing new material. But when the group end the set looking tired but delighted, thanking the unusually small audience for allowing them “the chance to be the band that [they] are – a loose, sloppy barefoot rock band”, it doesn’t really matter anymore. When a band can put on shows like this, they’ll keep selling records and filling arenas. And for good reason.