By Brian Ives
“Every night before we go onstage, I get on my f—ing knees, and I pray to God, I pray to uplift the people who have come to see us play. And to love them, and to give the best I can to them. That’s my life’s mission.”
That’s a quote from Flea from April 14, 2012, from his acceptance speech at the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It had been over a quarter of a century since Flea and singer Anthony Kiedis formed the funk-punk combo. By that point, many artists — if they are still playing at all — have become jaded. But not Flea. At one point in the show, he suggested, “Let’s put love out into the world: that’s the power we’ve all got!” From nearly any other rock star in 2017, that might come off as snark. But Flea meant it; part of his charm is that he tattoos his heart on his sleeve. And it’s a sentiment that much of the audience appreciated.
The sense of joy and wonder in Flea’s playing — and in the playing of his bandmates — permeates every show that the Red Hot Chili Peppers have played for the past few decades. And that was the case last night for the first of three sold-out shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Flea, drummer Chad Smith and guitarist Josh Klinghoffer took the stage at 9:15 pm for one of their many extended improvisational jams of the night. Soon, Kiedis came bounding on stage to join them as they went into one of their classics, “Can’t Stop.” “Choose not a life of imitation,” he rapped, and that’s something the band live by; they were unique when they released their self-titled debut way back in 1984 — there wasn’t anything that funky on alternative radio back then — and they still are unique today. Most of their peers from the ’80s and ’90s have broken up, or are playing nostalgia based shows.
The Chili Peppers, meanwhile, are touring for last year’s The Getaway, an album that holds up well to their incredible catalog. Their last tour, for 2011’s I’m With You, saw some great performances, but Klinghoffer was still new to the band, having just replaced John Frusciante. Today, he’s been in the band for eight years, two albums and lots of concerts; he’s done his time and now he fits in perfectly. That’s no easy task, as he’s replaced not only John Frusciante, but also the late Hillel Slovak. Both of those guitarists were perfect foils for Flea, and it seems like Klinghoffer and Flea have reached a similar point in their musical partnership. At any rate, the joy almost radiates off of the two of them when they lock in together for a jam.
Speaking of radiating, the band’s light show added to the sense that the show was a joyful party. There was a series of hanging lights that changed length and color which allowed each different song to have its own set design.
The band avoided playing a hits-filled nostalgia show; in fact, many of the songs came from the past decade; much of the set was from The Getaway, I’m With You, 2006’s Stadium Arcadium and 2002’s By the Way. It wasn’t until six songs into the set that they even dipped into the ’90s with 1999’s “Right on Time” (from Californication). And it wasn’t until the 12th song that they touched their biggest album, 1992’s BloodSugarSexMagik with a raucous “Suck My Kiss.”
Throughout the night, Kiedis bounced around the stage, exploding with joy, while Klinghoffer proved himself (again) to be a worthy heir of the guitar position that had been occupied by Slovak, Frusciante and (briefly) Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction. And Chad Smith is one of the most underrated drummers in rock.
It’s a testament to the current lineup that many of the show’s highlights came from The Getaway; “Dark Necessities,” “Go Robot” and “Goodbye Angels” held up to earlier classics like “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie,” “Dani California” and “Californication.” The encore was two songs: “Goodbye Angels” from The Getaway, followed by — of course — “Give It Away.” The unspoken point seemed to be that their new songs hold up to their most well-known classics.
It’s not easy for a rock band with thirty years of history to be a vital live group or to still make excellent records. How do they do it? The answer may be in the rest of Flea’s Rock Hall speech from 2012: “The burning, intense desire that is inside me to play music, that has not diminished in the slightest, that has only deepened as time has gone on, is when we are hittin’ it, when we are really inside the groove, when we’re on… I’m lost, man. And in that moment, I am truly free of everything, and I am truly one with everything.” And without getting too “kumbaya” about it, the Chili Peppers created that sense of togetherness with strangers, and a temporary freedom from the insanity of the news cycle, and let an arena full of fans get lost for just under two hours. And in 2017, that’s a powerful thing.
New Orleans’s Trombone Shorty performed before the Chili Peppers, bringing a bit of the Big Easy to New York City; it was one of those rare instances when a much lesser known opening act stops the audience in their tracks and gets them to listen. By the time he and his band closed with “Do to Me,” it was starting to feel like their show. With any luck, he’ll be headlining MSG in the near future.
The first act was Jack Irons, the Chili Peppers’ former drummer. His artful set was akin to Rush drummer Neil Peart’s drum solos; it was just Iron on drums, triggering samples, while films were beamed on the screen behind him. A cool warm up, and a nice touch, but it probably would be better served in a much smaller venue.