Red Hot Chili Peppers, O2, review: 'ridiculous clothes and earth-shakingly exciting music'

Hot Chili
Credit: Action Press/REX/Shutterstock

With the Red Hot Chili Peppers, what you see is what you hear: four men with dodgy haircuts playing their socks off. “Thirty years we’ve been coming to London,” bellowed bassist Flea, waving a triumphant fist in the air at the first of four sold-out nights at the O2 Arena. Indeed, the first time I saw them was at a dingy rock club in Camden in 1985 (when the aforementioned socks were draped over their rudest appendages and you really didn’t want them to come off). They were fantastic then, and they are fantastic now.

The California punk funk quartet hark back to a time before the great fakery that has become ingrained in live music performance. There were none of the backing tracks, click tracks, sequencers, vocal doubling, autotune and chorus effects that have become ubiquitous at big concerts. Every beat and note was produced on stage before our very ears by a committed, competitive, super-tight band. Its sheer liveness was utterly thrilling. 

Credit: Amy Harris/REX/Shutterstock

The hardness and sonic separation of the Chili Peppers’ sound was extraordinary. Each instrument occupied a very particular sonic space, not so much blending together as striking as one. They are a band of (almost) equals, where drummer Chad Smith and bassist Michael “Flea” Balzary are as recognisable as singer Anthony Kiedis. The balance of the sound was mixed between those three, with the hardest-hitting drums you could ever wish to hear smacking against Flea’s finger-picking, thumb-thwacking, ultra-clean funk bass, whilst Kiedis’s virile vocals rose and punched into the air above, moving between snappy rock rap and gorgeously flowing pop melodies.

Guitarist Josh Klinghoffer remains the perennial new boy, the 39-year-old having replaced John Frusciante in 2009. His startling, inventive playing and exuberant physical commitment is essential to the unit, but his echo-laden sound was mixed into a thin wash, supporting the rhythm section rather than leading the charge. It lends the Chili Peppers an unusually percussive dynamic. 

Credit: RMV/REX/Shutterstock

On record, the narrow parameters of their style can sound samey, but played live with a freedom that facilitates jamming, extending and reshaping material, it proved earth-shakingly exciting. Two additional musicians, Nate Walcott and Chris Warren, intermittently added keyboards and percussion to widen and thicken the sound, integrating beautifully with the unit.

It was fascinating to see the extent of visual exchange between players, as musicians eyeballed each other, talking off-mic, laughing at little musical twists. Leaping about like ungainly over-enthusiastic acrobats, they genuinely seemed to be getting as much out of this performance as the audience. The Chili Peppers boast a simpatico virtuosity and gladiatorial edge that brought to mind such all-time great live bands as Cream, Led Zeppelin and The Police. They don’t make them like this anymore. They don’t dress them like this very often either.

Credit: Michael Hurcomb/REX/Shutterstock

Both Flea and Kiedis ended the show shirtless but, fortunately, not trouserless: he may just about wear more clothes than they did back in the eighties, but they still look ridiculous, like a gang of escaped convicts trying to pass themselves off as a circus troupe. The appalling clothes, dodgy haircuts and ugly moustaches set a tone where dignity is not even an issue: it’s all about expressive release. Even the architectural light show and background visuals were dynamic without distracting from the action on stage. Everything is focused on a band who simply don’t need bells and whistles to impress. Still red hot after all these years.

Returns only. Details: