Photos courtesy of Le Festival d'été de Québec
Chad Smith cracks on his snare, Flea starts pulsing through a simple, squelching rhythm, and Josh Klinghoffer whirls around it, the occasional jolt of white noise spasming in time from his low-strung guitar. It takes 90 seconds for the Red Hot Chili Peppers to square up before Klinghoffer is left alone to snap out the intro to “Can’t Stop,” eyes closed, half in orgasm. Anthony Kleidis bounds onstage, wraps his forearms around a mic stand, and dives in to the first verse. 80,000 people at Quebec City’s Plains D’Abraham go ape shit.
Within this is everything that detractors of the Red Hot Chili Peppers hold up as silly and disposable. There’s the showmanship that they deride as self-indulgence; there are the absurd lyrics, all packed with Californiaisms, that are cast off as cringeworthy; there are the air-kicking, pogo-jumping kinetics that are sneered at and deemed needless. It's fodder for the people who memorized the lyrics to "By the Way" way back when, but laugh off any connection to the band now.
That's all too easy, though. Tonight, for 90 minutes at Le Festival d'été de Québec, they do the same thing they’ve been doing for the past couple of decades: wailing, bouncing, crooning, shouting, dancing, grinning, fucking loving every second of absolutely fucking everything. And, on stage, where they belong, it's not corny, but rather intoxicating in the truest sense—it kills your inhibitions, makes you grin, screws with your bodily functions. And, pretty much across the board, it works perfectly.
“Can’t Stop” is a good place to start, and not just because of that strange, spare, insistent riff. Yes, Anthony Kiedis is a lyrical absurdist; his lines don’t always add up. But he's underrated vocalist and writer, a rhythm musician with a voicebox instead of a bass. His lyrics are designed to dig in and stay there, regardless of their absurdity. There is no better rhythm for the verse in “Can’t Stop” than the one produced by the lines “Go write your message on the pavement / Burn so bright, I wonder what the wave meant.” He found the thread of the song, tapped into its core, and came out with the most complimentary cadence possible.
This makes them a great stadium band, for starters. Tonight, 80,000 people, most of whom have thick French-Canadian accents, sing the words “Come back strong with 50 bellydancers” like they’ve been waiting their whole lives to shout it in public. They have the ability to change their audiences and push them into odd places.
Not that it’s all about sheer absurdity. “Californication” is so bleakly postmodern that grad students would purr at it in a Bret Easton Ellis novel. Yeah, we went to the moon, but Kubrick did it better, “it’s made in a Hollywood basement.” And everything’s a commodity anyway, everything’s for sale, "Hollywood sells Californication." Here he's less of an absurdist and more of a note-taker, stringing small, half-significant happenings together to form a greater whole. He's able to do the same on "Scar Tissue," compiling brief moments of romance and prettiness, hanging them all together and seeing what comes of it.
Yes, Kiedis’s voice falls off tonight, occasionally. “Otherside” in particular suffers when his earpiece seems to die. But there’s a field of people belting back that beat-up chorus, drowning everything else out, taking the edge off the half-tone he’s slipped down. And when everything's working, his voice retains that durable oddness. There are few stadium-level bands whose singers are so unique as to be irreplaceable. Axl Rose couldn't pull this off.
As a live act, though, The Chili Peppers are truly great not because of their frontman, but because every member of the band is oddly captivating. Plenty has been made of Klinghoffer’s status as John Frusciante’s understudy, trained up to play these songs, learning his falsetto ideosyncracies and picking up the lead guitar trills that define the band’s high points. But while he’s retained much of his predecessor’s style, he’s a different performer, more innocent and reckless when he lets loose, less burdened by the darkness that Frusciante bled so beautifully into his work.
Flea, too, remains a brilliant court jester, constantly moving, pulling faces, posturing, losing himself while running rampant over his fretboard. Like Smith with his now-shortened drum solos, he knows just how far to take his improvisation. He’s impressive on “By The Way,” sure; he can play fast. But he shines most brightly on tracks like “Under The Bridge,” sitting beneath Klinghoffer’s guitar and drawing every drop of regret from the track.
Which raises the question, again, of self-indulgence. What sort of self-indulgence creates that level of cohesion, the genuine chemistry between Flea and Klinghoffer in particular? What sort of narcissism is it when a band only drops three tracks from a newly-released record—“Dark Necessities,” “The Getaway,” and “Go Robot”—into their set? What sort of arrogance makes the Red Hot Chili Peppers close out their set with “Under The Bridge” and “By The Way” before encoring with “Around the World” and “Give it Away,” a wet dream for their fans?
No, Red Hot Chili Peppers aren’t self-indulgent. They’re not puerile, at least not anymore, and—32 years after their debut record—there’s hardly an ounce of fat on their set. This is a band that should be criticized for its failings—Stadium Arcadium was rank average, songs like “Purple Stain” are fucking stupid—but adored for its successes. They’ve had too many of them for it to be ignored.
Alex Robert Ross is far more shocking than anything you ever knew. Follow him on Twitter.