Even in the throes of their various drug problems, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ core duo of Anthony Kiedis and Michael “Flea” Balzary managed to radiate a very Californian athleticism. Now clean and approaching their mid-fifties, the pair look preposterously buff, like ageing Hollywood action heroes cranking out sequels in a hit franchise.
The last time I saw them play, in a small venue debuting their mediocre 2011 album I’m with You, they seemed to be going through the motions. But the first of three shows at the O2 Arena brought a transformation. The energy on display was unsurprising: like a Tom Cruise film, any Chili Peppers performance involves a lot of running around. The difference was the staging’s verve and imagination.
It opened with bassist Flea on stage with guitarist Josh Klinghoffer and drummer Chad Smith. The trio struck up a wild jam, joined midway through by singer Kiedis. Then the lithe guitar intro to “Can’t Stop” cut through the noise and an immense grid of glowing lights descended over the stage and audience. Composed of 800 free-hanging lights, it proceeded to rise up and down, undulate and form different colours and patterns in time to the music, a coup de théâtre designed by the arena-spectacle company Tait.
Four new tracks were played from their latest release The Getaway, a decent album filleted for its best moments. Outbreaks of jamming recurred between songs, a tribute to the alternative culture from which the band emerged in the 1980s. Then a familiar anthem would start up, the likes of “Under the Bridge” or “Californication”, testament to their transformation into big beasts of US arena rock.
It was an intense, skilful performance. Flea’s bass-playing was a blur of fingers and slapping thumb, a muscular rhythmic counterpart to Kiedis’s crisp vocals. Smith was a powerhouse drummer, hurling sticks into the audience between beats. Klinghoffer played guitar as though in an electric storm, the heroics of an axe wizard fighting for mastery over the elemental forces at his fingertips.
A neat interpolation of Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up” into “Give It Away” showed the control that underlay the high-voltage showmanship. Flea’s acrobatic handstand walk back to his spot for the encore summed up an evening of upended expectations. Gravity, like time, is just another obstacle to overcome for California’s immortals.
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