Frequent Midnight Sun contributor Evan Haga caught the Red Hot Chili Peppers show in Washington last night. Here's his take:
The most impressive thing about the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ sold-out show last night at D.C.’s Verizon Center had more to do with what the band played than how they played it.
The Chili Peppers formed in Los Angeles 28 years ago — an eternity in pop — and they’re beginning to reap the nostalgic rewards of that longevity; specifically, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April. But at Verizon, there was little nostalgia and even less coasting. The crowd received material from last year’s excellent "I’m With You" as enthusiastically as it did radio hits from two decades back. The audience spanned adolescent to middle aged, but here “cross-generational” didn’t mean kids liking old music. There was a sense that each age bracket discovered the band on its own terms, with its own wave of relevant music.
Last night, that music meant five songs from "I’m With You," two from 2006’s "Stadium Arcadium," three from 2002's "By the Way," four from 1999’s "Californication," two from 1991’s landmark "Blood Sugar Sex Magik" and the cover of Stevie Wonder’s "Higher Ground," included on 1989’s "Mother’s Milk." It was mostly a 100-minute singles parade punctuated by the occasional deep cut (such as the funk assault “Right on Time”) and lots of pre- and between-song jamming.
The Peppers came off as a player’s band, loose and groove-crazy and unpretentious. The light show and stage set — a large video backdrop and eight small screens that moved in various arrangements and could form a circumference — were arena-appropriate but unobtrusive. The action was at stage level.
On record, frontman Anthony Kiedis, still in great shape nearing 50, owns one of rock’s best and most identifiable voices: a substantial but tender tenor when he sings; a rapper of tongue-twisting agility. At Verizon, he fared best with the funk-punk component, spitting his impressionistic rhymes on “Give It Away,” “Around the World” and the like. While singing conventional melodies, he sometimes quavered. The more he sustained, the more you noticed him hovering around the target pitch instead of hitting it.
Forty-nine-year-old bassist Flea, per usual, moved like an atom, running in place, walking on his hands and providing his trademarked banter, from the lucid and heartfelt (a dedication to late Beastie Boy Adam Yauch; approval of President Obama’s recent gay-marriage comments) to zany. He bolstered his reputation as one of rock’s electric bass virtuosos, but in a different fashion than he built that reputation.
Through the ’80s and early ’90s, Flea slapped and popped incessantly; here, playing mostly material from the last 15 years, when the Peppers’ emphasis tended toward songcraft over sheer funk, he primarily stuck to finger-style technique. On solo turns, such as the ramp-up to “Around the World,” he stunned; as a foundation, playing hooky basslines on new tunes like “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” and “Ethiopia,” he was unshakable.
But if Flea was the anchor, drummer Chad Smith, 50, was the bottom of the sea — an ideal fusion of a hard-hitting rock drummer and a funky “pocket” player with a pinpoint inner-metronome. He was augmented throughout by percussionist Mauro Refosco, which felt sort of like duct-taping a handgun onto a tank. Still, Refosco worked welcome new colors into the arrangements — some effective Afro-Cuban touches on “Can’t Stop” — and sparred well with Smith at the onset of the encore. (The band was also joined on many songs by a keyboardist, whose playing was often hard to detect in the mix.)
New guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, 32, was the wild card, even if he’s already proved himself via "I’m With You." For those who suspected longtime guitarist John Frusciante was the driving creative force in the studio over the last 15 years, "I’m With You" was a relief, proof that the band is able to expertly meld melody and funk without him.
But Frusciante was also the resident guitar hero, a deft funk rhythm player and a Hendrix disciple with chops built for arenas and festivals. Klinghoffer attacked Frusciante’s written parts with accuracy and aplomb. Despite his distorted tones being obscured by treble in the boomy arena, he pulled off the guitar solo that closes “Dani California.” He nailed the loose rhythm parts of “Under the Bridge,” as well as the stinging single-note funk riffing of “Give It Away” and “Around the World.”
It was, in fact, eerie how similar to his predecessor Klinghoffer seemed, even physically. Lanky in long, baggy clothes, he threw himself around the stage with a parallel spastic-slacker poise. Like Frusciante, he managed to seem shy and withdrawn while offering genuine guitar-god showmanship. He favored similar axes — vintage Strats, white Gretschs — and slung them low. On the frequent improvised jams he focused on rhythm playing and the group dynamic, and his slashing, scrappy grooves were on par with Frusciante’s.
But there were also times when Klinghoffer offered things Frusciante didn’t. He sings differently and well, with a strange but engaging androgynous croon. And he proved himself as a texturalist, using effects and space to compensate for his sub-Frusciante soloing. Like the band itself, Klinghoffer found the sweet spot between reinvention and honoring previous triumphs.
Evan Haga is the editor of JazzTimes. Wesley Case edited this post.