Red Hot Chili Peppers Are Classic Rock Now

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Chad Smith (on drums) and Anthony Kiedis. Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

This weekend saw the launch of the second annual Meadows Music Festival in Queens by Citi Field. Founders Entertainment, the production and promotion company also responsible for the city’s annual Randall’s Island summer bash Governors Ball, has approached the business of adding to New York’s annual festival load very carefully. By nudging Meadows out into September, it ducks the clutter of the June–July concert schedule (and much of the sweltering heat). By planting it in Queens and striving to showcase homegrown talent, Founders gave Meadows a dollop of local flavor that big weekend festivals occasionally lack. The weekend’s list of performers included appearances from Queens rap emissaries LL Cool J, Nas, Run-D.M.C., Nicki Minaj, and Action Bronson and ample space for New York talent from Jay-Z to TV on the Radio and Sleigh Bells.

The second Meadows went down smoother than the first, which was a good event hampered by unforeseeable timing: Last year’s Sunday headlining set was the one where Kanye West found out Kim Kardashian had been robbed in Paris. He left half an hour earlier than scheduled, sending a huge, confused audience home before anyone knew the exact details of the family emergency that ended the gig. The Weeknd, the other headliner announced that year, didn’t make it either, citing “curfew changes” that apparently allowed him to play Saturday Night Live but not his show at the festival. His replacement was J. Cole.

Last night I overheard a guy by the main stage tell his girlfriend that the decision to have the Red Hot Chili Peppers anchor this Sunday was an attempt to replace the unpredictability of rappers with the reliability of a legacy rock band, which is bullshit when you consider how many Chili Peppers hits are about the turmoil and unpredictability of getting and staying off hard drugs.

This axis of hard living and geniality is the beating heart of the Chilis’ nearly 35-year career. The California four-piece is a monument to friendship and chemistry, but its birth in the middle of the scuzzy, druggy ’80 Los Angeles rock scene placed enough heroin within reach to nearly destroy it. (Few bands from the scene made it out without a gnarly addiction story. See: Motley Crüe’s The Dirt, the definitive tome on blowing up in Reagan-era L.A. and nearly dying in the process.) Dark shadows haunted the Chili Peppers’ history but gave the music rare depth; the maudlin edge in even a lightweight song like “Scar Tissue” is the difference between health food and street meat. It’s a little grimy, but there’s so much flavor.

The Chili Peppers’ headlining set last night was a wonder of smart planning. A band with as many distinct and different commercial streaks as this one can sometimes struggle to balance them in a festival setting. The Chilis’ catalogue is rich enough to fill an hour and a half with just the hits, but the band was confident enough in last year’s The Getaway to drop cuts like “Go Robot” and “Dark Necessities” into the evening’s mix of classics from 1991, 1999, and 2002 without killing the energy. Legacy acts don’t always have this tight of a grasp on which bits of the latter-day material stack against the classics. Jay-Z still insists on playing “Young Forever.”

In between the Getaway highlights and a volley of Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Californication, and By the Way hits there were winks at the band’s influences in the form of covers. We got a quick run through the Funkadelic classic “What Is Soul?” as a nod to the group’s early mentor George Clinton, a big-band rendition of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” to flash the Chilis’ punk leanings, and the Mother’s Milk version of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” which married punk, funk, and metal while sliding from muscular Motown homage to a blast of hard-core at the end.

The revolution of the Red Hot Chili Peppers has always been the ability to transform the band’s disparate interests and wild experiences into ragged, glorious pop tunes, and the Meadows set honored Chilis history while showcasing the creative chemistry that made it all possible. They broke into jams often, but always seemed to know when to cut it. Newly minted lead guitarist Josh Klinghoffer deftly handled the task of carrying melody while bouncing notes off bassist Flea and backing vocals off singer Anthony Kiedis. His style and demeanor are wilder than the former Chilis axman John Frusciante, and his fretwork was never less than inspired. Drummer Chad Smith seemed cozy slipping between slinky funk pockets and full-blooded hard-rock moments.

Three extra touring musicians helped smooth out some of the sinewy rawness of the four-piece. A keyboard player handled the sideline melodies of “Dark Necessities,” the choir notes at the end of “Under the Bridge,” and the one-note piano hook of “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Elsewhere, a second percussionist made the backbeat of “Dark Necessities” hit like falling bombs. If The Getaway was about opening up new possibilities for the Chili Peppers through additional players and instruments, The Getaway Tour wants you to know they’re capable of crushing your face with three, four, five, or even seven players.

I thought about the guy who said the Red Hot Chili Peppers were a safe headliner later in the night, when Flea stepped up to the mic and said he’d been looking for the moon only to catch sight of the lights from the LaGuardia Airport Holiday Inn, then cracked wise about hotel bed sheets as a general rule being encrusted with semen. Not long afterward, a family passed by me with a headphoned baby in tow. There were dozens of babies in the crowd Sunday night. There were 40-, 50-, and 60-year-old husbands and wives recounting tales of bygone Guns N’ Roses and Metallica gigs, all gathered to see the naked minstrels of ’90s alternative, a band that struck me as profoundly crass and weird in 1991 that, here in 2017, was being received as something akin to classic rock.

It’s testament to the wellspring of hooks and hits the band has sired since the ’80s that it could pull such a diverse audience together, and it speaks to the craft and versatility of its players that it could keep them all wide-eyed and dancing. “Classic rock” might basically be swear words to a certain strain of young music iconoclast, but they’ll all live to see their favorite music slip into the same space. “Classic,” insofar as it means “timeworn and beloved,” is a fitting description for both the aging, affable Chili Peppers themselves and the winsome, nostalgic music they play. Nothing stays cutting edge forever.

Red Hot Chili Peppers Are Classic Rock Now