Red Hot Chili Peppers Blend Californication With Immigration At Ellis Island

Band celebrates release of By the Way with set next to immigration museum.

NEW YORK — For a while, the first Red Hot Chili Peppers show after the release of their new album, By the Way, seemed in jeopardy of not happening.

The gig was set for Ellis Island, next to the immigration museum, which is only accessible by ferryboat. As the Peppers prepared to board the vessel to take them to the concert grounds, the skies opened up. Lightning bolts zigzagged across the horizon, thunder clapped with the volume of exploding mortar shells and 1,000 fans and industry folk huddled for safety under rows of trees and a small boathouse filled with security personnel (Click for photos from the show).

Undaunted, the band, its crew, members of the press and a smattering of celebrities — including Demi Moore and magician David Blaine — filed onto the craft, which pitched on the stormy sea like Gilligan’s S.S. Minnow until it finally reached shore. For the next two hours, the rain slowed, but didn’t stop, and by the time the band hit the stage, much of the audience was waterlogged. The dark clouds and cold rain didn’t dampen the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ spirits, though, and during the concert they enthusiastically spread their bittersweet California sunshine rock throughout the venue.

The event marked the second album-release concert the band has staged in New York. In 1999, it played on the top of the World Trade Center to promote the release of Californication, which seemed reason enough to view last night’s concert as a tribute to the strength, endurance and spirit of New York City — especially since the post-9/11 downtown-Manhattan skyline was visible stage right. The radio station that sponsored the show had that perspective as well, reserving half the tickets for people who lived near the WTC site, but the band seemed oblivious to the political significance of the gig.

“We’re just kissing ass to the radio station,” bassist Flea said backstage before the concert. “We’re doing a show for them ’cause our manager told us to. This is an interesting place, though. I have Hungarian heritage and Irish heritage and I imagine those people coming here and having their names changed. I was thinking about how bizarre it must have been for them to come up and see the New York skyline and come here and be at the mercy of a bunch of bureaucrats. It must have been a completely weird turning point in someone’s life.”

During the evening, the Red Hot Chili Peppers didn’t reference 9/11, terrorism or New York. Instead, they focused on the exuberance, joy and emotional revelation of their music, including six songs from the swooping and eclectically melodic By the Way, which fit in nicely between the trademark punk-funk exhortations and melancholy ballads of the band’s prior recordings.

They opened with the new single “By the Way,” and immediately shifted into high-energy, fun-loving performance mode. Bare-chested singer Anthony Kiedis jitterbugged with his mic, singing with clarity and warmth while Flea fidgeted in place and guitarist John Frusciante raised his guitar skyward to punctuate each dramatic musical phrase.

There was no doubt the band was in the mood to celebrate, and for the Red Hot Chili Peppers no party is complete without liberal doses of humor. “I don’t want anybody to take their clothes off,” Flea said after a rousing “Around the World.” “It would be like sh—ing in Uncle Sam’s birthday cake.”

Kiedis followed by congratulating a couple that just got married and jesting that the Peppers would be the wedding band for the evening. “This will be the first of three sets. Help yourself to cocktails. They’re not free of charge.”

Then the group started “Universally Speaking,” just one of the many lush sprightly tracks from By the Way. The song sounded like a blend of Big Star and the Beach Boys, and considering how he’s veered off-key in concert in past years, Kiedis’ vocals were surprisingly precise and passionate.

During the more upbeat tunes, he sang with percussive urgency, and at more tender moments, he crooned with flowing grace as Flea thrummed away rhythmically and drummer Chad Smith kept up a steady, flavorful beat.

But it was guitarist John Frusciante who provided some of the most exciting moments of the evening. The single most important factor in the band’s post-One Hot Minute comeback, he provided many of By the Way‘s unconventional arrangements, soaring background vocals and stylistic flourishes. And he’s a hell of a live presence. With scraggly hair, glazed eyes and arms badly scarred from past years of drug addiction, he looked like an escapee from a mental institution and played like a divinely inspired virtuoso whether strumming wakka-wakka funk, jangly pop, jagged reggae, echoey atmospheric rock or ripping out squiggly solos.

The short set consisted of 15 songs, and many of them were from Californication, including the title track, “Scar Tissue,” “Otherside” and “Parallel Universe.” Strangely, during their regular set, the band played nothing from their biggest album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The songs from By the Way included “I Could Die for You,” the insistent, groove-laden “Can’t Stop,” and the textural, evocative “Venice Queen.”

Despite the sometimes aching vibe of the new material, much of which was written about the end of one of Kiedis’ romantic relationships, the Ellis Island concert was consistently upbeat, and the crowd cheered, bounced and sang along as the band played.

“One good thing about playing on an island is if you’re having a bad moment, you guys are just stuck here,” Kiedis told to crowd after “Venice Queen,” even though the band’s set was practically flawless. “You can’t leave. We could start playing Bon Jovi covers and you’d still have to stay [until the ferries come after the concert].”

Fortunately, the Red Hot Chili Peppers didn’t follow with “You Give Love a Bad Name” or “It’s My Life.” Instead, the band closed with “My Friends,” then encored with “Under the Bridge” and “Power of Equality,” providing plenty of reflection and punch for the fans that stuck it out. Even the bomb-sniffing dogs scouring the venue’s perimeter couldn’t take away from the triumphant vibe.

For a full-length feature on the band, check out “Red Hot Chili Peppers: The Secret Sauce.”

For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, see MTV News Tour Reports.