If Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith was worn out from his New Orleans adventures over the weekend, he didn’t show it Sunday when his band went to work at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell.
On Saturday, Smith guested with Pearl Jam at Jazz Fest’s Acura Stage for a raucous cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Later Saturday night, he — and Nick Jonas — turned up at the Saenger Theatre to sit in with Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue.
But Smith thwacked away as enthusiastically as ever at the Acura Stage on Sunday, trying to stir up his fellow Chili Peppers and the massive sea of humanity in front of the stage.
In the thick of it, the Chili Peppers crowd seemed bigger and more densely packed than Saturday’s Pearl Jam throng. Even the shallow depression on the right side of the field that is usually a dependable secret passage through the crowd was clogged with people, despite its muddy bottom.
The audience also seemed, on average, younger. A music critic in his upper 40s represented the high end of the demographic; 13-month-old twins Harlan and Grace Utley, attending their first Jazz Fest aboard a double stroller, occupied the other end of the spectrum.
The vast majority of the tens of thousands of bodies crammed into the field skewed closer to the twins’ age than the critic’s.
Unlike Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers did not bog down their set’s early going with unfamiliar music. They jumped in right on time with “Can’t Stop,” followed in quick succession by “Dani California” and “Scar Tissue.”
Flea, per usual, performed shirtless and was in constant motion, his bass as overactive as always. Singer Anthony Kiedis, per usual, performed with the right leg of his pants cropped at the knee to reveal a black tube sock. Smith, per usual, rocked a backward baseball cap, which did nothing to disguise the fact that he could pass for Will Ferrell’s twin brother.
Like many New Orleans bands, the Chili Peppers are built from the bottom up. Flea plays as prominent a role as the lead guitarist does in most rock bands. Smith’s kick drum — adorned with a portrait of Louis Armstrong — propelled the songs. Josh Klinghoffer, the most recent addition to the band’s roster, soloed over the top.
In the confined space of an arena, as in the last time the Chili Peppers played the Smoothie King Center, such a configuration can be explosive. In the wide-open space of the Fair Grounds, with shifting winds siphoning off much of the volume, they sounded thin at times. With as many as three electric guitars churning at once, Pearl Jam filled the space more effectively.
The Peppers may even have played things too safe, with too many pop songs. “Aeroplane,” “Snow (Hey Oh)” and “Right on Time,” with its disco pulse chorus, also turned up in the first half of the set.
Just shy of an hour in, they lit up “Higher Ground,” the Stevie Wonder cover that, decades ago, helped the Chili Peppers introduce their funk-punk hybrid to a wider audience. When he performs on the same stage next Saturday, Wonder is unlikely to replicate the frenzied freak-out the Peppers stamped on the end.
Flea, the chattiest Pepper, gave a shout-out to Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, who was apparently watching from the wings.
When Pearl Jam and the Chili Peppers toured together in the early 1990s, Flea recounted, Ament mentioned that he was from Montana. As a native of Los Angeles, Flea thought “that was the most exotic (stuff) I’d ever heard in my life.” Flea continued with a tale of breaking his arm in Montana. “I can see you’re all really interested in it,” he dead-panned.
With that, Klinghoffer eased into the guitar figure that opens “Under the Bridge.” More than 20 years old, “Under the Bridge” has evolved into a sort of “Stairway to Heaven” for millennials. Cellphones across the field were thrust skyward to capture the moment.
The punchy “Suck My Kiss” gave way to two more relatively sedate favorites, “Californication” and “By the Way.” After a five-minute break, they returned with a faithful “Around the World.”
At the 2006 Voodoo Experience in City Park, the Chili Peppers brought out members of the Meters, the New Orleans funk band that they — Flea especially — have long cited as a major influence. They reprised the collaboration as their finale at Jazz Fest.
A gushing Flea introduced Meters bassist George Porter Jr., drummer Zigaboo Modeliste — who was confined to a drum kit in a remote corner of the stage — and keyboardist Ivan Neville, who isn’t technically a Meter but often performs alongside his uncle Art.
“I thought Pat Boone invented funk,” Kiedis cracked.
“I think it was actually Robert Goulet,” Flea retorted.
After a brief, indeterminate jam, the combined rhythm sections launched “Give It Away,” a signature slab of Peppers funk. “Give the drummer some!” Flea enthused, cheering on “Zigg-edy, Zigg-edy Zigaboo.”
It was fat and loud and fun, but long stretches of the set, which ended 15 minutes early, weren’t. They should have called out the Meters out sooner.
The Chili Peppers, unlike many other major acts at Jazz Fest, didn’t salute the recently departed Prince. On Sunday at the Congo Square Stage, J. Cole wore a purple jersey adorned with the Prince glyph instead of a number.
Earlier in the day at the Acura Stage, Better Than Ezra paid tribute to another deceased rock star whose passing has otherwise gone unnoted at the festival. They dedicated a faithful cover of the Stone Temple Pilots’ “Interstate Love Song” to that band’s late singer, Scott Weiland.
But then, getting with the Prince program, they concluded with his “Raspberry Beret.”
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.