The mood in Madison Square Garden in the moments leading up to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ second of three sold-out concerts, held on Friday, Feb. 17, was an eerie mix of excitement and curiosity. There was plenty of anticipation amongst concertgoers; after all, the band had already broken its almost 14-year absence from the Garden two nights earlier. With those demons having been exorcised, the question that lingered was what they would do for a follow-up.
The night got off to a low-key start, with the band’s former drummer and founding member Jack Irons serving as the first of two opening acts. Irons drummed along to atmospheric synthesizers that served a mostly textural purpose. The set was wisely kept brief so as to avoid redundancy, but Irons managed to find several surprising variations on a seemingly limited concept. The crowd reacted warmly.
Trombone Shorty was next, with his backing band, Orleans Avenue, in tow. Shorty spent the better part of his performance earning his nickname, demonstrating his prowess on an oft-ignored instrument with inventive phrasing and considerable showmanship. A proud product of the New Orleans music scene, Shorty showed that his tastes go beyond the rich traditions of his home city, offering an instrumental cover of Green Day’s 1996 classic “Brain Stew.” Shorty and Orleans Avenue’s heavy, high-octane and charismatic brand of funk definitely owed something to that of the evening’s main attraction, a fact that wasn’t lost on the audience, which showed plenty of enthusiasm. Still, one could sense that, with each passing moment, the crowd craved to hear the real thing.
When the Chili Peppers finally did take the stage, they found themselves in the unique position of having both nothing and everything to prove. Such is the price to pay for a band whose music has spanned more than 30 years and a few generations. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees whose place in history appears secure, the Chili Peppers are also a band vying to remain a creative and commercial force. Their latest album, 2016’s The Getaway, for which their current tour is named, was their first since 2011, and featured a new producer in Danger Mouse, who was tasked with updating the band’s style without disrupting its well-established essence. The Chili Peppers had, at least in part, staged the tour with the intention of promoting their new music. However, the thousands of fans in attendance no doubt had an appetite for the band’s classic material, as evidenced by the raucous applause that greeted the set’s opener, “Around the World.” It was clear a balancing act would be in order.
The Chili Peppers’ set, which favored songs from 1999’s Californication on, still provided a little something for everyone, and above all, proved that they’d lost none of their trademark onstage energy. At 54, frontman Anthony Kiedis was in strong voice throughout the night, rapping with speed and clarity through the verses of “By the Way,” nailing the forceful snarls of “Aeroplane” and slipping into mellower deliveries on “Snow (Hey Oh)” and “Soul to Squeeze.”
Josh Klinghoffer, who replaced beloved longtime guitarist John Frusciante in 2009, not only filled in admirably, but demonstrated a musical identity all his own. His low, earthy solo on “Californication,” though very different from Frusciante’s original, elaborated significantly on the song’s darkness and irony, while his fresh take on “Soul to Squeeze” shed new light on the song’s sense of defeated anguish.
Drummer Chad Smith and bassist Flea proved a propulsive rhythm section, with the latter embellishing brilliantly on the basslines that had led many to refer to him as one of the best on the instrument. One of the night’s more endearing moments came when, after a particularly inspired bass improvisation in between songs, Kiedis asked Flea whether he truly was coming up with things off the top of his head, to which Flea coyly replied, “You never know when you’re going to hit a good one.”
The band’s light show, a welcome surprise that took on many shapes and colors throughout the night, moved most consistently in a tidal wave pattern. Watching it, one couldn’t help but deem it perfect for a band whose career has been one of ebbs and flows—the death of founding guitarist Hillel Slovak in 1988; the band’s mainstream breakthrough three years later; the drug problems of Kiedis and Frusciante, which cost the band a large portion of the 1990s; the band’s 1999 comeback album, Californication; and Frusciante’s increasing discomfort with fame, spelling his exit from the band.
On this night, however, the Garden crowd appeared to pay no mind to the band’s bumpy road to success, as they had the pleasure of witnessing the Chili Peppers at a high-water mark. Loyalists were treated to deep cuts like “Hey,” off of Stadium Arcadium and “Look Around,” which sported a tight-rocking climax. The band’s recent catalog was well-represented, with four of the set’s 16 full songs (excluding jams and snippets) coming from The Getaway, which may have explained the omission of fan-favorites like “Dani California” and “Under the Bridge.” Regardless, the audience reacted gamely to the new material, particularly “Dark Necessities” and “Goodbye Angels,” which opened the encore.
By some standards, the set may have seemed a bit short, and it’s quite possible that a few fans left the concert wanting more. But that may well be how the Chili Peppers want it; if after 30-plus years in the music business, the Chili Peppers can garner that expectation, there’s a good chance they still have a lot more to offer down the road. And since much of their fan base has enjoyed following them every step of the way, there’s a chance that their fans are happy to want more from them, too. Perhaps Flea best summed up the band’s trajectory in a brief aside to the crowd near the show’s beginning: “We roll along here, buoyed on a cloud of love from you guys.”