GULF SHORES, Alabama — Having been at this for more than two decades now, the Red Hot Chili Peppers clearly know how to headline a fest: play the hits, thank the crowd, occasionally swat at a beach ball, exit stage right. Maybe work a few well-placed curse words in there too. These things tend to be the same.
So it's a testament to both their versatility and their dedication that the Chili Peppers' Saturday-night set at the Hangout Festival was anything but by the numbers, as the band jammed long and hard, stretching songs to the breaking point (and beyond), much to the delight of the raucous, sun-baked crowd.
Perhaps it was because their headlining slot kicked off just minutes after seasoned jam-meisters the String Cheese Incident finished their two-and-a-half hour set (which, for them, was basically just a warm-up), or maybe they were taking their cues from Friday night's headliner, Jack White, but from the minute the Peps strode on stage, they were playing fast and loose. Drummer Chad Smith, bassist Flea and guitarist Josh Klinghoffer started things off with a reverb-heavy psych jam that only morphed into "The Monarchy of Roses" when frontman Anthony Kiedis bounded on stage, then kept that momentum rolling into "Can't Stop," with the trio trading solos while Kiedis nodded in time to the beat.
There were, of course, more straightforward moments too: the Peppers tore through a string of hits, including "Dani California," "Under The Bridge" and "The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie," and attacked songs like "Blood Sugar Sex Magik" and their version of "Higher Ground" with impassioned pounding. Flea was his usual non-sequitur self, spouting stuff like "Sweet Home Alabama, mother----er!" and "Forgive your parents!" into the mic, and Kiedis was, as always, the warrior-shaman showman, posing and preening, always in motion (he and Flea also made the rather interesting decision to wear pants with one leg cut off above the knee). But there was a general, genial looseness throughout their two-hour set, showcasing Smith's lock-step drumming, Flea's precision playing and Klinghoffer's wild, winding fretwork.
At several points, they seemed to be making it up as they went along, gleefully turning a few stray notes into lengthy, twisting jams: Klinghoffer would summon a solo from his guitar, while Flea would flail and pound along, Smith and touring percussionist Mauro Refosco kicked off the band's encore with a twisting back-and-forth exchange, and after blasting through "Give It Away," the band closed their set with a lengthy, voluminous instrumental. The Peppers have always drawn from funk, and Flea's dabblings in Jazz have paced them for nearly twenty years now, but on Saturday night, the improvisational nature of both were readily apparent. Rather than do the usual headlining set, the band wanted to just play.
It seems to be a recurring theme of the Hangout fest ... and it served as a perfect capper on a day that also saw lively and loose sets from the likes of Gogol Bordello, Mac Miller and Skrillex (who, in a bit of inspired scheduling, kicked off opposite Randy Newman). The Red Hot Chili Peppers breathed new life into time-tested favorites — "Suck My Kiss" was pounding and primal, "Californication" soared to new heights, "Soul to Squeeze" was sanguine and sweet — and appeared to have a blast whilst doing so. You can't teach old dogs new tricks, but, if you bring them to the beach (and scheduled them after a jam band), well, you can certainly make them push things to the limit ... with fantastic results. If this whole "world-famous rock band" thing doesn't work out for RHCP, their Hangout set was proof that they'd make a killing on the jam circuit. Your move, String Cheese.