Red Hot Chili Peppers: Beating the odds to become rock survivors
On the verge of their third decade, the L.A. rockers show their mettle to Seattle fans
By Jonathan Zwickel
Special to MSN Music
"Thanks a lot, Seattle!" said the diminutive bassist, sweat-drenched and out of breath at the close of the Peppers' 100-minute performance. "We've been playing here since 1983!"
Meditate on that: Playing since 1983.
Thirty years going strong may not be a big deal if you're the type of band that was born to triumph, of which there are many. But the Chili Peppers have never been that band. Since their inception in the grimy L.A. club scene of the early '80s, raised alongside reliably tragic underdogs like Fishbone, Thelonious Monster and Limbomaniacs, they've been on a path to underachievement. Throughout their existence, the Peppers have sabotaged themselves with drug addiction, drug overdoses, drug paranoia, infighting, walkouts, hiatuses and drugs. Amid such a fraught lifestyle, their musical output has been uneven. And yet, on the strength of some truly indelible songs, they've endured.
And there they were alive and exploding onto the massive, expensively-lit KeyArena stage, playing to an almost-sold-out crowd of some 15,000 fans—nerds-turned-techies, middle-aged couples, teens in homemade RHCP shirts chaperoned by their beer-drinking former sk8r-boi dads. Nearly 30 years in, the band that was once the alternative to reigning classic rock had itself become reigning classic rock: accessible, cross-generational, tuneful, mainstream.
Flea, singer Anthony Kiedis and drummer Chad Smith bore the fleshy baggage of a life lived under the bridge, so to speak. (Kiedis is 50 years old!?!?) Flea came out shirtless, Kiedis in what looked like a softball uniform and tailcoat, and Smith appeared as a doppelganger for Will Farrell behind a Tommy Lee-sized drum kit. Newish, 32-year-old guitarist Josh Klinghoffer played the role of the kid, injecting bluesy shredding where departed guitarist John Frusciante's streamlined melodicism used to be. A percussionist and a keyboardist added heft and dynamic.
They opened with "Monarchy of Roses" from last year's “I'm With You” album and then, not five minutes into the show, went into a drum solo. "Dani California" followed, wrapped up with a bombastic outro jam between Smith and Klinghoffer, which went into a jam between the conga-playing percussionist and Flea — all compact tension and thrusting muscle — to lead into "Look Around" from “I'm With You.”
"Hate to get all Miles Davis circa 1980 on you," Kiedis joked after the song. "Got to let that freaky fusion flag fly."
Such exploratory self-indulgence was woven into the entire show. The micro-jams were at first gratifying, proof the dudes weren’t simply going through the motions. Eventually the novelty wore off: Each micro-jam sounded the same. Still, the band played the hell out of their instruments and Kiedis' voice, one of the most compelling in modern rock, had lost none of its potency.
A full half-hour went by before they reached back to 1991 for "If You Have to Ask," the first of five tracks from the landmark “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” album. Here Klinghoffer's guitar was appropriately minimalist and wiry. An exuberant "Me and My Friends," from “Uplift Mofo Party Plan,” was the oldest selection of the night. Later in the set, "Under the Bridge" incited an arena-wide singalong. Though its tempo was slightly rushed, the song provided one of the most emotional moments of the evening.
At the top of that list was "By the Way," the title track from the Chilis' multiplatinum 2002 album of the same name. The song's pure sonic wallop—volume, intensity, melodramatic melody—pushed the band and the crowd into overdrive, all compounded by manic visuals. On eight wall-sized screens behind the band flashed copulating skeletons and punk-rock iconography in neon green on black. The audience could no doubt relate to the lyrics: “Standing in line to see the show tonight and there’s a light on…” It was a climactic finale to the set.
For the encore, the band acknowledged the artistic triumph that is "Blood Sugar Sex Magik" by playing three songs from the album. The crowd was clearly grateful for "Sir Psycho Sexy" and "Give It Away," both of which recalled the gonzo, hypersexual funk the band was once known for.
The surprise of the night was a cover of Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.” The Peppers played it faithfully. With Flea providing backup, Kiedis sang straight, “Everybody seems to wonder/What it's like down here/I gotta get away/from this day-to-day/running around/Everybody knows this is nowhere.”
From the perspective of the band onstage — one who’s been touring the world for three decades, along the way growing from carefree screw-ups to beloved superstars — it was the perfect road song.
Jonathan Zwickel is senior editor of City Arts magazine in Seattle and contributes regularly to SPIN, The Believer and MTVHive. His book "Beastie Boys: A Musical Biography," was published last year by Greenwood Press.
Photos: Chris Schwegler/Retna Ltd.
I didn't know Will Ferrell played drums for the Chili Peppers.
I would have loved to see Flea do his best Donny rendition.