Monday night in Tel Aviv’s Park Hayarkon wasn’t just any gig for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was a sort of homecoming.
The band was formed almost 30 years ago in Los Angeles, but its original guitarist Hillel Slovak — who left, rejoined, played on two albums and ultimately paid for his heroin addiction with his life in 1988, aged all of 26 — was born in Israel.
Eleven years ago, the band canceled a gig because of second intifada-era security concerns. Now they were finally here, and Slovak was plainly a factor. They said they were sending out one song to his home town of Haifa. Bassist extraordinaire Michael “Flea” Balzary hailed him mid-set as the man who “invented Israeli funk”; left unsaid was the fact that the late guitarist’s unique style has always informed the band. Flea also recalled how, when they were playing together in their early years in LA, Slovak made a trip to Israel, and came back “so excited… so full of love.”
Listening to all of that, having Flea wish us all “Lehayim!,” telling us how happy, grateful and “humbled” the band was to be here, hearing him say after the encores that they’d remember this night “for the rest of our lives” — well, it was clear, in retrospect, that the boycott pressure groups were never going to have kept the Chili Peppers away.
The crowd was huge — the promoters said 50,000 or more — and spectacularly good-natured. Unsurprisingly. The night was warm but not oppressively so. The music was delivered via a sparkling sound system. And the three large screens at either side and back of stage were utilized to unusually good effect: There were close-ups of our musical heroes that borrowed the monochrome moves of “Sin City,” pop-art sequences, and all kinds of weird and wonderful tricks with color and contrast.
And the music was a joy. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are generally categorized as funk-rockers, but that sells them short. Flea and drummer Chad Smith propel every song infectiously forward — everybody, but everybody was dancing throughout — but there’s melody and harmony and subtlety to their music, too, and they replicated it onstage, outdoing their recorded versions with instrumental intros, layers of extra vocals, fresh keyboards and more. And they had Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen up on stage for two numbers for even more pep.
For the five of us who went together, the Red Hots are a genuine generation-spanning band. My dad was playing “Under the Bridge” on guitar, badly, before any of us were born. “Californication” and “By the Way” were two of the hardest-working CDs in our car pool. Lots of the best Red Hot songs swing improbably from gentle Beatles territory to raucous rock to rap — diverse musical styles uniquely reconciled, to provide satisfaction for all tastes within the space of three or four minutes. We were just grinning at each other, song after song, enjoying the family memories triggered by the music, marveling at Flea’s bass-playing (and his hand-stand walk across stage) and laughing at the ridiculous rhymes.
No, they didn’t play “Scar Tissue,” and they didn’t play “Road Trippin'”. And after 30 years of albums, I’m sure everyone else had a couple of favorites that got left off the set-list as well. At two hours, they didn’t play long enough. But they came to us, finally, belatedly, bearing wishes of peace and love and prosperity. And they were, as the lyric from “Around the world” has it, romping and stomping and most certainly in their prime.