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The Chilis Take Manhattan

Kiedis and Co. bring the “magik” to Madison Square Garden

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
‘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

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
, 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

Which proves that the only thing wrong with the music business
is the business.


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