When the Red Hot Chili Peppers returned to the stage Monday night at Allstate Arena, they did so one by one.
Drummer Chad Smith first leapt up and hung from a circular lighting rig before dropping onto the stool behind his enormous kit (complete with timpani). Guitarist Josh Klinghoffer emerged next, adding textured filigrees atop Smith's rebar rhythms. Bassist Flea walked in on his hands before picking up his bass for another thwackfest. The trio -- all eye contact and double-dog dares -- tore through their seventh sizzling jam of the night, and for a moment, well, you'd be forgiven if you hoped Anthony Kiedis wouldn't come back out.
He'd been a drag throughout the nearly two-hour concert, a surprisingly dead weight on an otherwise spry ensemble (amended by an extra drummer and keyboardist). He lurched and skipped aimlessly around the stage while the band raged. He sang his parts plainly and sometimes a bit off. At the end of "Otherside," while the trio stretched the melodious bass melody into a mini drum solo and an explosive finish, Kiedis stood there looking useless and sipping tea. Rarely has a front man seemed so utterly marginalized.
RHCP has been around nearly 30 years. They were just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, justly celebrating a crackling career that started in visceral, madcap punk-funk, made a lot of noise and novelty with frat-boy outrageousness and sock-jock hijinks, then capitalized and -- depending on your point of view and/or particular age -- went totally tapioca once an uber-sensitive ballad ("Under the Bridge," from 1991's "Blood Sugar Sex Magik") went triple platinum. Their latest album, "I'm With You," received another Grammy nomination and sparked this tour. So they don't exactly have much to prove anymore, but Monday night Kiedis was the only one who looked as if he accepted that.
The jams, the virtuosity, the improvisation of the musicians -- that's the legacy on display here. Individually, each player is a seasoned pro -- Smith's fills roll like thunder, Flea's skills swing in any genre he employs (thanks in part to his frequent extracurricular work, such as his new Rocket Juice & the Moon gig) and Klinghoffer, who joined the Chili Peppers as a guest guitarist in 2007 while his friend John Frusciante was still in the band, isn't as distinctive a player but boasts a remarkably loose wrist that contributes just the right coloring. Together, they're a mighty force. They chugged like a tuned juggernaut through "Look Around," "Can't Stop" and Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," but they worked just as hard to control the mellow moments such as "Hey" and "The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie." Their jamming between songs, as if unable to control themselves, could've been a whole show.
Kiedis didn't spoil anything, but neither did he add any real heat or spice. Once a hair-swinging, gawk-worthy force of nature, Monday night he was just another ironic mustache along for the ride. Late in the main set, he sat on a stack of monitors while his mates improvised -- Flea leading off with a dark, moody groove, which built and burst and eventually brought Klinghoffer literally to his knees -- and Kiedis watched and shared our awe. The soft set list did him few favors, and he seemed dogged by sound problems in his earpieces (at least he didn't use that as an excuse for a diva moment a la Van Halen's David Lee Roth).
When he strode offstage at the end of the encore, sad to say, he wasn't missed. The rest of the band jammed another several minutes without him, gleefully morphing "Give It Away" into a fierce funk blowout concluding with Flea ranting into the mike, thanking Chicago and encouraging continued support of live music. RHCP will be back in a several weeks to headline Lollapalooza 2012, and here's hoping they'll be firing on all four cylinders.
RHCP set list Monday night:
"Monarchy of Roses"
"Around the World"
"Strip My Mind"
"The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie"
"Under the Bridge"
"By the Way"
"Suck My Kiss"
"Give It Away"