Tuesday, August 7th 2012
Festivals: Red Hot Chili Peppers
This might all be bullshit. Let’s get that out of the way immediately. What I witnessed on Saturday night, while ankle deep in muddy water at the close of Day Two at Lollapalooza, was the same that about a hundred thousand others standing with me saw: the Red Hot Chili Peppers began their headlining set in terribly flawed fashion, completely missing cues and looking like a band that was anything but an iconic multi-platinum gang of beloved Angelenos who’d helped hone the sound of an entire generation. But what transpired after the third song of their performance was something entirely surprising, and a reaffirmation that RHCP remain one of the most uniquely complex and professional brotherhoods in music today.
With festivalgoers on equally filthy footing after the pummeling storms that caused a two-hour evacuation of Grant Park on Saturday, Lollapalooza – taking its own cues from 2011 – once again rose above the standard festival experience in gloriously muddy, passionate fashion. With immensely powerful sets from Doomtree, JEFF The Brotherhood, Bloc Party and more leading us into the night, it was a committed mass who stuck around in the stinking mudwater on the main stage to catch the Chili Peppers as they powered their way through a set that started on terribly shaky ground – but ended in the kind of high-reaching ebullience that made last year’s soakfest with the Foo Fighters so incredible.
Shortsightedness in music writing is a cancer of journalistic disgrace. Publications large and small declared the Chili Peppers dead in the water after the shaky start to their Lollapalooza set last weekend. They said frontman Anthony Kiedis clearly doesn’t care anymore, that Flea’s talents are evolved to the point of making the band irrelevant by comparison, and above all else, that new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer – attempting to fill the ten-ton shoes left behind by his virtuosic predecessor John Frusciante – is but a kid-brother shadow of what came before, unable to rise to the challenge in the explosive live setting of an RHCP show .
None of this is true.
Had you only stayed for the first three songs, you would likely agree that the band was an utter fucking mess of incongruent oddity. Kiedis was obviously under the weather and fighting to maintain a high energy output through missed cues and twisted lyrics, while a recklessly off-point Klinghoffer was out of key and all over the place. The band simply didn’t gel in the onset of their performance. With the thundering but passionless opener Monarchy of Roses the band lifted off shakily, and the crowd – which extended clear to the back of the field and up the hill to packed capacity – willed them to be better. These were Grammy-slamming multiplatinum megastar radio fixtures. How the hell could things be falling apart like this?
After a beautiful Flea-driven improv jam led into a disastrous Snow (Hey Oh), the Anthony, Flea and Josh met center stage for a moment that stands as a greater testament to the band’s professionalism, dedication to the task and general give-a-fuck about the crowd experience than most anything I’ve seen. Anthony and Flea were visibly agitated with Klinghoffer, gesturing wildly in close proximity, verbally accosting him off-mic for a good half minute.
They didn’t wait until after the show to address the errors behind closed doors, hashing out their issues while maintaining game face. It seemed that they had it out it front and center, albeit off-mic, in front of a hundred thousand maniacally committed and muddy fans. They weren’t going to let the show continue to unravel through a lack of cohesion and communication. It was a verbal throwdown at center stage that was clearly anything but a feel-good pep talk. Shit got aggressive, and Klinghoffer was the singular recipient. That much is clear.
Then a switch flipped. Whatever was said clearly had an impact on the band’s newest member, who stepped up his game in truly astonishing fashion to match Flea’s intensity and improvisational prowess. Even the guy’s vocal harmonies leapt up to near-Frusciante levels of excellence with an immediacy that begs the question: what the hell did they say to him?
That sounds blasphemous, I know. Fuck that guy, right? That’s been the general consensus since Frusciante quit. I’m a massive fan of RHCP’s departed virtuoso stringman, and thus far Klinghoffer’s presence in the band has been little more than a passable shade of what John brought during both of his eras within the group. It’s just not the same without him, and clearly so. His beautiful harmonies, his jaw-droppingly lush psychedelic leads, the overall sense of melodic backbone that he provided to level the buoyant ship-rocking Anthony and Flea are known for. But Saturday night the replacement stepped into his own as if his job depended on it – and judging by the bitter dissatisfaction on Kiedis’ face early on, that very well may have been the case.
Bursting through hits ranging from Around the World, Suck My Kiss and Otherside, Flea was a thrashing live wire of improvisational excellence, more often than not bridging gaps between songs with funk-beauty versatility and jaw-dropping jazz-fusion solos. By the halfway point, however, Josh was joining him regularly on the meanderings, and by show’s end, the kid was wrestling the improv wheel away from the blue-haired low-ender.
The bro hugs may have set a world record during what apparently remains a permanent frat anthem Under The Bridge, and human porcupine Guy Fieri chose an excellent time to spaz like a bad Chris Farley sketch from his secure piglet cage behind the barricades as Flea roared “Fuck the one percent!” between songs, sidestepping the irony of his own bank account placing him firmly in that sector. It was all a bit too surreal, even without the TV chef’s shitty frosted tips and finger jewelry fucking up the view.
It was hilarious and rather sad, in retrospect, to see the relentlessly bouncing crowd reduced to a standstill during tracks from the pre-Californication era, indicating a shortsightedness of music culture that goes right in tandem with the widespread acceptance of a genre that relies only on a play button, bright lights and bass drops. Thankfully, the EDM infection was relegated to the Perry stage throughout the fest, and while there is undoubtedly a world of fun to be had in that world, the artistry on display is scant at best in such a medium. But I digress.
Josh filled all the gaps, hit all the marks and even compensated for Anthony’s floundering stability during the encore, particularly on the soaring vocal finish of Brendan’s Death Song, for which he took over vocal duties entirely. And as he spun and thrashed maniacally around the stage during closer Give It Away, there was an undeniable air of accomplished satisfaction – and likely a great deal of relief – written all over his presence. He delivered.
So about those negative reviews calling for RHCP’s demise – not one of them is likely to mention the fact that the crowd for the Venice kings’ headliner set was easily the biggest in Lolla history, stretching nuts-to-butts all the way to the hill in the back and beyond. Nor are they going to share the fact that not a single soul left until the very last note had been played – and even further, until Flea had finished a gushing monologue about standing up for and supporting live music, because in the fucked up climate of oppressive corporatist misrepresentation of humanity currently gobbling our nation, “it’s the best thing we’ve got!”
Witnessing a band hammer out their difficulties and rise to the challenge of not only their headlining placement but their own long-running legacy was a reminder that organic truth can still be represented onstage in 2012. Showmanship is one thing, but when a band of this magnitude can gutpunch themselves into stepping their game up and saving the night, it helps me believe that there’s still plenty of hope left for Rock n’ Roll. And Josh Klinghoffer, for that matter.