By Mark Guarino
F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are “no second acts in American lives.” But what about rock careers?
If you stepped into a time machine and dialed it back to 1992, the band least likely to transcend future generations would be the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their rudimentary mash-up of funk, rap and hard rock did not seem to have a long shelf life and the band’s personnel changes and round of heroin abuse helped ensure the expiration date was near.
Tell that to the junior high kids filling the seats at the sold-out Allstate Arena Tuesday. Now in their 24th year, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have successfully survived as the band everyone loves. You can thank successful rehab for that, but recent credit is also due to “Stadium Arcadium” (Warner Bros.), the band’s 28-track double album that won five Grammy awards in early February. Like the recent mid-career transformation of Green Day, the Red Hot Chili Peppers present an image of good-natured dudes playing sunny songs with boundless energy.
“Love is the answer,” bassist Flea announced early in the evening. Would you expect any less?
For a band once known for outrageous stage outfits or no clothing at all, this current incarnation of the Red Hot Chili Peppers is today clearly about one thing: musicianship. The 100-minute show began and ended with instrumental improvisation, as did many of the songs. While the responsibility was partially Flea’s — he’s a bass player with fingers that move as if swatting flies —guitarist John Frusciante owned the night.
With closely cropped hair and wearing a beard and blue flannel, he was the least conspicuous onstage. That wasn’t the case when he played. When new songs like “Charlie” and “Dani California” seemed to near their end, he revived them with his gritty fretwork illuminated by frequent fits of ecstasy. Even during his most furious moments, his playing was filled with sweetness, a quality he also conveyed when singing harmonies in a high falsetto. At one point, when the band fell away, he was left alone to sing and play solo. The song he chose: “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” by Carole King and Gerry Goffin.
All of this had a way of upstaging singer Anthony Kiedis who tended to sing facing sideways and into the yarn of his gloved fingers. Kiedis is less impressive as a rapper than he is a singer. Which meant that mellow, groove-oriented songs like “Scar Tissue” or “Snow (Hey Oh)” sailed through impressively while funk-rap workouts like “BloodSugarSexMagik” sounded gnarled and dated.
As a showman, Kiedis did not fail. On “Throw Away Your Television,” the show’s conceptual song of the night, he waited until the band broke the song down to its barest parts until he launched into one of his more fitful dances. Part wiggle worm, part kickboxer, he thrashed as if powerless to fend off his band’s ferocious energy.
Openers Gnarls Barkley played a 40-minute set dressed as gawky schoolboys. In introducing “Crazy,” the band’s smash hit song from last year, singer Cee-Lo put success into perspective. The song, he said, “made us rich and famous today.”