After the lights went down at PNC Arena Saturday night, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ headlining set began with the sound of a noodling saxophone from offstage. Then drummer Chad Smith, guitarist Josh Klinghoffer and bassist Michael “Flea” Balzary came out and fired up an instrumental, jamming on that for a while. And after that, they finally played a song that opened with a bass solo and closed with a drum solo.
All of which is to say: If the vocal arts are your thing, this probably was not the concert for you.
Not that frontman Anthony Kiedis wasn’t a big part of the proceedings, once he finally got into it, because of course he was. Still, the image that lingered in the memory afterward was Kiedis restlessly pacing the stage as the trio of Flea, Smith and Klinghoffer played on.
It helped that all three Chili Peppers instrumentalists are monster musicians, although it did feel like a pretty subdued evening by their usual manic standards. But even if the show never truly caught fire, just riding the groove seemed like more than enough for everyone.
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Perhaps memories of the deceased accounted for the subdued tone. The band paid tribute to a range of departed friends and peers with between-song shout-outs to Dave Chappelle sidekick Charlie Murphy and “Pistol Pete” Maravich (the late great basketball star who graduated from Raleigh’s Broughton High School in 1965). Guitarist Klinghoffer was also wearing a “Skully” T-shirt, in memory of former Pearl Jam roadie Tim Quinlan, who died last year.
Over the course of a 90-minute set, the Chili Peppers offered up a good chunk of last year’s “The Getaway” album, leading up to the inevitable encore closer of “Give It Away.” They passed over a lot of their best-known songs including the 1992 breakthrough “Under the Bridge,” which is still their biggest-ever hit.
Few people in the near-soldout crowd seemed to even notice the missing numbers. There was plenty to see as well as hear, including a very cool overhead bank of movable lights that alternately pulsed, ebbed and flowed like ocean waves or flocks of birds.
Opening things up Saturday night was Jack Irons, original drummer for the Chili Peppers when they first formed way back in 1983. Irons played a solo-drum set backed up by taped backing music, and accompanied by videos of psychedelic scenes of nature, planets, “Alice in Wonderland” and such. It was a pleasantly ambient 20 minutes.
Then came a show-stealing turn by Baby Metal, a trio of young Japanese singer/dancers done up as gothic cheerleaders, with the occasional kimono and mask thrown in. Backed by a metallic white-robed quartet with faces painted ghostly white, they put on a breathlessly paced half-hour. Between the pop-metal riffs and spot-on choreography, they were as exhilaratingly strange as they were adorable.