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Infused with heat

Red Hot Chili Peppers have transformed their rock from in-your-face to in-your-soul.

October 13, 2003|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Roll over, Michael Jordan, and tell Magic Johnson the news: Showtime was back at the Forum on Saturday.

Not the '80s Lakers' fast break but an explosive concert by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a Los Angeles band that counts itself among that basketball team's biggest fans.

At one point, bassist Flea, thrilled about playing in the Lakers' old arena, stepped to the mike to proclaim that Magic Johnson was the best of all time, even better than Jordan. Later, he emotionally thanked the audience, saying, "We grew up in this city, we love this city."

Even though the Chili Peppers made a remarkable breakthrough four years ago, their formal concerts in L.A. have been surprisingly infrequent, so Saturday's show, which preceded a scheduled date Sunday at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, had the feel of a homecoming celebration.

And the band backed up that sense of occasion with a 90-minute set that underscored the band's remarkable transition. A group that was once all in-your-face flash is now a no-nonsense, to-the-point and emotionally challenging pillar of rock.

That's a far cry from the draining, dionysian windup dolls who became stars in the late '80s. Back then, a Peppers show made you feel as if you'd spent an hour inside a pinball machine: provocative and frantic, fun for a while, but ultimately numbing and closed-in.

Now you leave feeling you've been touched by an embracing spirit.

You don't need to know the band's back story -- death, drugs, survival, renewal -- to grasp the mix of determination and vulnerability that defines the Chili Peppers' mature music.

That kind of trial typically saps a group of its inspiration and energy. But when guitarist John Frusciante rejoined the Peppers for 1999's "Californication" album after six years in the wilderness, the band reconnected with the reflective, melancholy tone of its 1991 hit "Under the Bridge," an expression of near terminal loneliness.

They began formulating a mix of rattling aggression and sweetly melodic introspection that took them to a new commercial and artistic level, supplying rock radio with such instant standards as "Scar Tissue," "Around the World," "Otherside" and "Californication" (a commentary on the entertainment industry's global imperialism that seems prescient now that the tryst between Hollywood and Sacramento has been consummated).

Songs from "Californication" and last year's successor, "By the Way," dominated Saturday's set, but what the records only hint at is the band's intense focus and telepathic interplay. Those are usually the currency of jazz and classical music, but the Chili Peppers have turned them into formidable rock weapons.

It's hard to imagine any players more locked into one another, especially Frusciante and Flea, who would often stand chest --to chest, eye to eye, intertwining contrapuntal lines before scampering off to far corners of the stage.

Drummer Chad Smith anchors the sound so firmly that Flea can give his virtuosity full rein. Frusciante is a minimalist guitar hero, honoring the empty space that's a key presence in the songs, placing his clear, piercing notes with elegance and subtlety. Anthony Kiedis now sings with an engaging wistfulness and with a conviction that makes even the most surreal lyric fragments seem important.

The old kinetic Peppers haven't been entirely put out to pasture. They still punctuate the music with ecstatic spins and leapfrog vaults, like a Ukrainian folk dance troupe turned into rock gods. After two decades, the bodies are still in shape. More important, they now have soul as well.

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