The light bulb goes on inside my head every time I see the Red Hot Chili Peppers live -- and it happened again on Tuesday when they hit the stage at New York's Madison Square Garden: That rhythm section has to make an instrumental record. Guitarist John Frusciante, bassist Flea and drummer Chad Smith opened the night as a trio, with a funk-metal-fusion show of force that rattled the Garden rafters like an impossible dream -- the military rhythm precision of the Meters blown up with the desperate energy of late-Seventies L.A. punk and the screaming rainbow soul of Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsys.
Then singer Anthony Kiedis leaped into the fray -- alternating between manic hip-hop calisthenics and the crisp, bright vocal melody of "By the Way" -- and I could see why that side-project dub record won't happen any time soon. As a threesome, Frusciante, Flea and Smith are the best arena-worthy backfield in modern rock. But with Kiedis, the Chili Peppers are a complete treat: technique, might and cheer, a matured rock band that has found a second wind as a knockout pop group. Their 1992 breakthrough BloodSugarSexMagik made alt-rock stars of the Chili Peppers; it remains the standard by which most rap-metal still fails miserably.
The Chili Peppers, however, are now much bigger than that, in quality and hits, because they figured out how to fit Blood Sugar's split personalities -- the funk mechanics of "Give It Away" and the bittersweet appeal of "Breaking the Girl" -- into single multiple-thrill songs like "Around the World" on Californication, which tonight careened from speedcore riffing and Flea's stuttering bass blend of Larry Graham and Dee Dee Ramone to a sweet bouncy chorus and that endearingly nonsensical moment when Kiedis just sings a few lines of sheer "ring-a-ding-ding" because, well, it fits. In comparison, "Breaking the Girl" sounded like a preliminary sketch for the quantum leap in classy action to Californication and By the Way.
One of the no-longer secret weapons in the Chili Peppers' arsenal is Frusciante's voice, a high-harmony wonder that frames Kiedis' non-rapping tenor with a minimalist Beach Boys flair. Frusciante got to show off on his own during the show as well: taking near-falsetto turns through the Chantels' 1958 hit "Maybe" (a street-harmony classic that was already twenty-five years old when most of the fans in this crowd were born) and the vintage electro-disco of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," with Flea playing the racing sequencer line live on bass. The Chili Peppers also played their minor-key, warped-tango treatment of the Ramones' "Havana Affair" as well as snatches of the Clash's "London Calling," "Ride Into the Sun" by the Velvet Underground and Funkadelic's "Cosmic Slop" -- evidence of both their covers prowess and now-encyclopedic range as a pop band.
Another thing that occurred to me, during the closing blaze of "Californication": Today, a band like the Chili Peppers, whose first two major-label albums were unfocused and sorely under-produced, would not get a chance to make a third. It took a decade for the Chili Peppers to get to BloodSugarSex Magik, and another one to get through personnel and rehab dramas to become the killer pop band they are now. The Chili Peppers had the time, facilities and opportunities -- maybe more than their share -- to reach fulfillment, and they didn't waste it.
Which proves that the only thing wrong with the music business is the business.