Red Hot Chili Peppers concluded their North American tour supporting wildly popular double album Stadium Arcadium in Oklahoma City, touting many a souvenir t-shirt proclaiming the cosmic nature of their music. Between Californication’s delightfully blasphemous “Parallel Universe” and Arcadium’s “Death of a Martian,” one gets the distinct sense that this band, which is still full of intergalactic funk, could actually be from outer space.
Having survived the logical outcome of ‘80s music (i.e., the pitiable rap-rock of Limp Bizkit) and the corrosive results of ‘90s medicines, Peppers guitar prodigy John Frusciante seems to think that his band, too, has successfully weathered the fickleness of fame and fortune. Twice during the band’s healthy two-hour performance, Frusciante belligerently chastised the crowd—Peppers fans through and through—for having little understanding of music outside of what’s played on MTV. Apparently, the boiling, boisterous passion of the Oklahoma crowd hit a nerve: they booed the opening band, who were as dim and seedy as a titty bar pumping mediocre rap.
Frusciante’s impromptu outspokenness on the matter was not only hilariously ironic, but also indelibly hypocritical. Last time I checked, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, you know, the band for which Frusciante plays guitar, is one of the most well-known, mainstream bands in this universe. Frusciante himself smiles proudly on the cover of the February issue of Rolling Stone, the magazine’s readers named the Peppers the best band for 2006, and Stadium Arcadium was declared its top album of the year. What’s more, the Peppers’ website tells fans to tune into MTV to watch the new video for “Hump de Bump.” And didn’t they receive five Grammys this year?
Nonetheless, judging from this performance, the band (and its resident virtuoso) seem to be steering the ship into new utopian seas. Departing from previous Peppers concerts, this time Frusciante wore the pants in the band—though they appeared to be of the thrift-store variety. The usual suspects—big-bopper, talk-rapper Anthony Kiedis and invariably quirky bassist Flea—could not compare to Frusciante’s raw energy and talent. In addition to lambasting the crowd, Frusciante illustrated his considerable and innovative guitar technique: virtually every song was played with unmistakable showmanship and vibrant musical gusto.
Are the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as a band, done? Did Kiedis and Flea take the night off? Is the band’s truly blessed guitarist taking over the band, stressing indie rock experimentalism in opposition to traditional rock formulae? Could it be that Frusciante wants to turn the Chili Peppers, mainstream though they are, into the impossible: an independent, noncommercial band? The Peppers’ Oklahoma City performance insinuates nothing less.
Admittedly, the Chili Peppers have altered their sound and subject matter on the last few albums (or, more exactly, since Frusciante’s triumphant return). Californication and By the Way introduced several reflective, folksy, and pensively melodious songs. Stadium Arcadium, too, largely exhibits these more mature tropes, but also includes the Peppers’ typical funk-based, whimsical material (see the current single “Hump de Bump”). It was no surprise, then, to find that these mature, reflective songs, mainly from Arcadium, dominated the band’s set.
Somewhat bizarrely, the Peppers’ lyrics have paralleled the path of David Lynch’s last few films, including his most recent, Inland Empire. The theme of both artists: a woman in trouble. Furthermore, the Peppers and Lynch both seem to be combing the obscure underbelly of Hollywood for ideas. The video backdrop for “Californication” prominently represented a ‘lady of the night,’ as Kiedis stressed the line, as “hardcore soft porn.”
But more tellingly, the melodic grit of songs such as “Wet Sand,” one of the brilliant, brooding songs from Arcadium, acted as the consummate theme of this set (and allowed the band to refrain from playing its most famous song, “Under the Bridge”). The song includes the worthy lyric, “The disrepair of Norma Jean could not compare to your routine,” which nicely summarized the lyrical and musical emphasis of most of the songs the band played. Tunes in this thematic vein included “Dani California,” “Tell Me Baby,” “C’mon Girl,” and, of course, the melancholic, weeping “Scar Tissue.” Kiedis’ vocals on most cuts were passable, but not exemplary. Frusciante, meanwhile, reinforced the songs’ emotional depth with extended Hendrixian solos and his myriad ostentatious mid-song guitar supplements. Chad Smith was potent on the drums at times, but still did not compete with the kinetic Frusciante.
While the meditative songs were, shockingly, praised by the crowd, the band’s more hedonistic, classic thrash-funk songs piqued their interest the most—especially “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” and “Give It Away” (which was played during the encore). In fact, one of the finest moments occurred when the band played part of The Clash’s “London Calling,” only to spontaneously break into the hyperfunky rhyme of “Right On Time.” It was shameful that the Peppers neglected to play “Party on Your Pussy” or “Around the World,” two more powerfully anthemic songs in this pleasurable vein. In short, it was plain that the crowd cherished the old-school party-time songs more than the band’s newly fashioned, thoughtful, and sweet-sounding ballads.
And it was even more incredible that Kiedis was absent from the last twenty minutes of the encore; though the other members bowed to the crowd, Kiedis chose not to grace us with his presence. This is not a good omen for the band, as Kiedis used to be a critical player. As Jody Rosen of Slate says, “The Chili Peppers remain most famous for their rowdy live show, and there, of course, Keidis is the focal point.” Scratch that. Now Frusciante has staged a veritable concert hall putsch, and the Chili Peppers’ live act, while still quite admirable, will not be as egalitarian in the future. Not in this or any universe.