Red Hot Chili Peppers are back on tour, and there’s a festive feeling in the air at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, on Friday, 29 July. The current home of the San Francisco 49ers sits more than 40 miles south of the City by the Bay, but such is life in this mixed-up world where money talks and tradition walks. Any doubts about whether the Chili Peppers could fill a football stadium in 2022 are dismissed as showtime approaches because the place is packed just like it gets for Niners games, and the fans are ready to rock.
The influential funk rock quartet from Los Angeles helped shape the sound of the alternative rock movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s, proving to be a formidable force in pop culture. Jane’s Addiction and the Chili Peppers headlined the first two Lollapalooza tours, demonstrating that alt-rock wasn’t just about grunge but also encompassed funk and psychedelia. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik became one of the most influential classics of the 1990s, even leading the band to be immortalized in an episode of The Simpsons with their 1993 appearance in Krusty the Clown’s memorable comeback special.
We here at PopMatters have had even more of a soft spot for Red Hot Chili Peppers since their bold move to step up and play a “Feel the Bern” benefit show for Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at the Ace Theater in Los Angeles in 2016. And though the political revolution fell short against the deeply entrenched forces of the corporate establishment, the thought remains what counts in a world gone mad that’s still in need of all the revolutionary artistic fervor the rock ‘n’ roll counterculture can muster. Hence, having the Chili Peppers back on tour with a new album in 2022 feels like a welcome shot of energy for the nation.
Beck has just replaced Haim as the opening band here on this tour date and delivers a proficient set of his unique genre-busting songcraft, though the vibe isn’t quite happening for most of it. We’ve reported previously about Beck’s intriguing career trajectory toward a still thriving career in the 31st century, which is destined to include a benefit show for broken robots in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It’s, therefore, good to see the postmodern songwriter still at it here. The stadium is only about half full when he comes on, though, and his sound doesn’t seem to translate so well in a venue of this scale, even though the volume level is quite blaring. But the set finally ignites when the closing hits of “Loser” and “Where It’s At” strike a familiar chord to rouse the audience out of their seats and get the party started.
Red Hot Chili Peppers presumably won’t face the same problem – when a band sells 50,000 tickets; one can believe the fans are ready to get down. The funky alt-rock stalwarts aren’t out on a mere nostalgia tour either, what with a new double album of fresh cuts out this spring in the form of Unlimited Love. They’ve also got ace guitarist John Frusciante back in the band for his third tour of duty, an exciting development for longtime fans. Josh Klinghoffer filled in admirably for several years (and was a heroic pinch-hit drummer for Pearl Jam at their Oakland shows in May), but there’s an extra level of Chili Pepper spice in the mix with Frusciante back in the fold.
That legendary chemistry is on display right from the start when Frusciante, drummer Chad Smith and iconic bassist Flea open the show with a smoking power trio jam that threatens to light the night on fire right out of the gate. Singer Anthony Kiedis then joins the fun for an electrifying opener with “Can’t Stop” from 2002’s By the Way album to get the house rocking. It’s a great opener as a high energy song that captures the band’s hard-hitting yet still melodic vibe, while also concluding with some thought provoking lyrics about spirits coming from space to teach humanity about the Pleiades.
“Dani California” keeps a groovy vibe going and is one of a welcome handful of tunes from the band’s excellent 2006 double album Stadium Arcadium. That tour featured a memorable Halloween show in Cleveland, Ohio that saw drummer Chad Smith as a dead ringer for Ricky Bobby from Talladega Nights in the character’s Wonderbread racing suit, an endearing image that’s still hard to shake as he rocks out here while Frusciante tears it up on guitar.
“These Are the Ways” is the first song played from the new album, and it’s a winner, featuring some great drum work from Smith. The drummer was apparently hanging out with Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan earlier this year and recommended the track as one of the album’s best, leading McKagan to feature it on his radio show “Three Chords and the Truth” on Sirius XM Radio. Flea steps up with a deep groove on the Stadium Arcadium deep cut “She’s Only 18”, which gets identified by fans as a bust out not played since 2017. The band extends the song with an jam where Frusciante rips melty hot wah-wah licks to fire up the crowd some more as the set continues to prove worthy of the stadium setting.
There’s a wide age range of fans in the stands from teens and college kids (some with their parents) to packs of Gen-Xers who are thrilled to see musical heroes from their youth still going strong three decades later. The fact that the Red Hot Chili Peppers can still rock out with as much energy as they do seems like another affirmation for rock ‘n’ roll as a fountain of youth-style elixir from the gods.
“We are deeply grateful, and I’m savoring every fucking nanosecond of this!” Flea proclaims at one point, no doubt expressing some relief from how the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the live music industry for the better part of a year and half in 2020-21.
A peak moment in the set occurs on “Wet Sand”, with Kiedis starring as he sings out some of his most philosophical lyrics about his shadow side and sunny side sparring with each other. The song seems to spark the atmosphere to a higher level across the stadium and it feels like there’s some metaphysical magic in the air during the psychedelic jam where Flea, Frusciante and Smith go deep. This leads to the funky “Tell Me Baby”, with Flea slapping down a great groove as the band rocks out on one of their most danceable numbers.
The Peppers are really rolling now and keep going with a dazzling performance of the new album’s opening track, “Black Summer”. The mid-tempo vibe and existential lyrics both recall 1999’s “Californication”, but with a fresh update here as Kiedis sings of how “China’s on the dark side of the moon”. It’s one of those songs that goes to a much higher level in the live setting, with Frusciante utilizing some trippy phaser effects and Flea grooving hard for an incendiary jam that goes way beyond the album track.
Flea throws down on “Nobody Weird Like Me” as the band flashes back to 1989’s Mothers Milk album for an explosive funk rocker with another next-level jam that ignites the night. Kiedis and Smith step aside afterward, leaving Flea and Frusciante alone for a compelling duo jam that generates another of the evening’s most memorable moments. There’s a chemistry between these two that is readily apparent, and it’s a delight to watch them in tandem here on what turns out to be a prelude to an ever zeitgeisty performance of the staple title track from 1999’s Californication album.
There’s an extra vibe seeing this bluesy number about the dark side of Hollywood performed here in the Golden State, with Kiedis exploring some of the pros and cons of the California vibe that gets exported to the rest of the world through the movie industry. It’s the penultimate moment in the set before the band rocks out on the modern funk classic of “Give It Away” to close the set with a blast. “Soul to Squeeze” feels like a bit of a surprise in the encore slot with its mellow vibe, but it seems to be a crowd pleaser on this breezy summer night. Red Hot Chili Peppers crank it back up for a big finish with the rocking title track from 2002’s By the Way album, which gets the whole stadium going again with its truly electrifying groove.
“We’re just little guys in the universe. Let’s be nice,” Kiedis advises during the final segment, voicing some higher truth hinted at in the “Can’t Stop” opener’s lyrics about wisdom from the Pleiades.
Red Hot Chili Peppers have earned big props for digging into their extensive catalog. This has not been just a greatest hits show as it very well could have been, with the Chilis instead showcasing the depth of their repertoire by leaving some of the hits on the shelf while featuring six songs from Stadium Arcadium and four songs from Unlimited Love. It’s a little surprising that the new album’s “White Braids & Pillow Chair” wasn’t played here at the Bay Area show since the lyrics reference affection for the legendary local scene. But the band has also recently announced that another double album is coming in the fall, giving fans another treat to look forward to and perhaps a fall tour of arena dates.