“Do you know what a Tar Heel is?” Red Hot Chili Peppers lead singer Anthony Kiedis asked the band’s bassist, Flea, early in their 90-minute show at Spectrum Center on Monday night.
“A Tar Heel – correct me if I’m wrong – ” Kiedis said, glancing out into the crowd, “ – is something that just won’t let go. It sticks to you. Like, it’s just not gonna give up. It’s like tar on your heel. It won’t quit.”
Of course, he might as well have been describing himself (now 54), and Flea (also 54), and drummer Chad Smith (55), and guitarist Josh Klinghoffer (the baby at 37). Thirty-four years after the rock band’s birth, these four guys are still grinding it out on the road in the name of the Chili Peppers’ legacy. But as Monday’s performance showed, they’re doing much more than just refusing to quit; they’re making it look easy, they’re making it look fun, and they’re making it clear that the band is still, improbably, at the very top of its game.
Here are 13 observations, musings, compliments and (small) criticisms about the best concert I’ve seen so far in 2017:
1. Hanging over the front half of the floor section was an enormous bank of hundreds of color-changing lights, hanging from skinny poles with a vertical range of motion of maybe 30 feet. There seemed to be an endless array of ways to raise and lower them – in groups, individually, in waves, sometimes in time with the music – that turned them into a living, breathing, dancing display worthy of gallery space inside the Museum of Modern Art. They were complemented by four giant video screens to the rear of the stage that sometimes blew up images of the band members and sometimes cast dazzlingly trippy, kaleidoscopic animations. The overall effect left never a dull visual moment.
2. The fashion choices were, as usual, uniquely RHCP: Flea wore pants that looked like they were made out of a quilt my grandmother had in her guest bedroom when I was a kid; Kiedis wore shorts over tights and sported his familiar bowl haircut and “pornstache”; the crotch of Klinghoffer’s pants sagged to about his knees; and Smith had on a blue sleeveless collared shirt and a matching baseball cap worn backwards – so he looked, as he sometimes does, like a “Saturday Night Live” version of a rock-band drummer as played by Will Ferrell.
3. During one of Smith’s solos, a guy sitting behind me actually did yell out, “We love you, Will Ferrell!!”
4. After “Dark Necessities,” the first of four songs the guys played off 2016’s “The Getaway,” Flea peeled off his shirt and played the rest of the night bare-chested. After “Go Robot” (also new), Kiedis decided it was time to show off his tattoos, too. Why, even now, in their 50s? Because that’s just how they’ve always rolled.
5. I thought there were times when the sound on Kiedis’s mic was a bit muddy, but on more vocally driven songs – “Californication” being a prime example – it was obvious that his baritone is as smooth as ever. Some rockers sound pretty rough when you pull back on the instruments and bring their voices out front; Kiedis basically sounds like he does on studio versions of RHCP songs. That is to say: excellent.
6. There’s something very cool and yet very nerdy about Kiedis when he gallops around stage like he’s riding an imaginary horse. (He does this a lot, by the way.) It’s like straight out of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” or something.
7. Klinghoffer might not ever be John Frusciante, but look, the dude can absolutely shred on the guitar. Period.
8. Flea is still the best bassist I’ve ever seen perform live. During Monday’s show, it was hard to pick a favorite bassline, although his work in “The Power of Equality,” “Higher Ground” and “Under the Bridge” was particularly face-melting. Also, he can still do passable jump-splits while jamming, and when he came back out for the encore, he walked across the stage on his hands for almost 15 seconds. How many 54-year-olds do you know who can do that?
9. If Flea has shortcomings as a performer, it’s his odd sense of humor. While greeting the crowd before opener Jack Irons took the stage to start the evening, the bassist jokingly introduced himself as Kemba Walker, best known as an All-Star guard for the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. Few seemed to get the reference (wrong crowd, I’d say). And during the Chili Peppers’ set, he set up 1987’s “Me and My Friends” by saying, “The next song is so old that when it farts, dust comes out.” If that got a genuine laugh from someone, I certainly missed it.
10. On the subject of opening acts, Irons’s solo drumming didn’t leave much of an impression on me... but Babymetal? I don’t think I’ll ever forget them. You should do your own poking around about this Japanese girl group/(very) heavy metal band, but let’s just say it’s like Dr. Frankenstein stitched together parts of Britney Spears, Megadeth, Nintendo’s stupidest games, “The Ghost in the Shell” and “Saturday Night Live.” I scratched my head, a lot. I laughed, a lot. But I couldn’t take my eyes off of them, and on the drive home after the show, it was Babymetal I was listening to on Spotify, not the Chili Peppers. Mostly, I think, because I needed to make sure I hadn’t dreamed the whole thing.
11. I love that the Red Hot Chili Peppers dislike doing the same exact set twice. I mean, I understand the reason big arena tours adhere strictly to a script – lights, effects, video, pyrotechnics, confetti and costume changes are easier to pull off when they’re planned and not ad-libbed. And hey, knowing the set list ahead of time certainly makes life simple for a concert reviewer. But a) I covet surprises, since there are so few in life, and b) it gives me, as a fan, the impression that an artist isn’t just sleepwalking through a show.
12. That said, RHCP always closes their concerts with “Give It Away,” and I strongly approve of that decision.
13. The show appeared to be either a sell-out or awfully darn close – even with the entire upper level open for business, which is rare – and pretty much everyone in the arena stood pretty much the entire night. After a rollicking rendition of “By the Way” to end the main set, the band left the stage to some of the most eardrum-destroying cheers I’ve heard this side of a Taylor Swift concert (although these were much lower-pitched, of course). When the guys re-emerged, the whole arena shook. And as I finish this review, a couple of hours after exiting the arena, the tinnitus won’t let go. It’s like tar on my heel. But it was worth it...
Red Hot Chili Peppers set list
1. Can’t Stop
2. Snow ((Hey Oh))
3. The Zephyr Song
4. Dark Necessities
5. She’s Only 18
6. Me and My Friends
7. Go Robot
8. Parallel Universe
9. Power of Equality
10. The Getaway
11. Higher Ground
13. What Is Soul?
14. Under the Bridge
15. By the Way
16. Goodbye Angels
17. Give It Away