Gnarls sets bar too high for Peppers

March 1, 2007


Tapping Gnarls Barkley for the opening slot on the "Stadium Arcadium" tour is one of those things that probably looked like a good idea on paper when it was first presented to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The critically acclaimed collaboration between sonic alchemist DJ Danger Mouse and vocalist Cee-lo Green is the sort of energetic and ambitious merger of genres that the Peppers once represented, early in their punk-funk career, when they were a key band marking the transition from the indie-rock underground of the '80s to the mainstream explosion of alternative rock in the '90s.

But Gnarls Barkley also proved that an experimental group can still have a major pop hit in 2006 with an irresistible single, "Crazy," without resorting to the sort of soggy and simplistic balladry that has come to dominate the Peppers' albums, winning them Grammys, radio play and the biggest financial windfalls of their 24-year career while sacrificing the old invention and freneticism.

There was no denying that melodic but repetitive mid-tempo sing-alongs such as "Dani California," "Scar Tissue," "Snow ((Hey Oh))" and "Californication" generated the most enthusiastic responses from the sold-out crowd Tuesday night at the Allstate Arena. But those songs also accounted for the least interesting third of the long-running California quartet's generous set.

As has been the case since their earliest tours, the best part of the Peppers' show came whenever bare-chested bassist Flea and muscle-bound drummer Chad Smith locked into an up-tempo groove, hitting it with the force of an earthquake while deftly navigating the most complicated polyrhythms.

At those points, vocalist Anthony Kiedis channeled James Brown's growl by way of Iggy Pop's yelp (he shouldn't even bother actually trying to sing), and guitarist John Frusciante found the strange, psychedelic middle ground between Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane.

Comprising the remaining third of the night, between those highs and the ballads' lows, were pointless spotlight showcases for each of the instrumentalists -- including the dreaded drum solo and Frusciante's delicate rendering of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" by the Shirelles -- and stretched-out jams that sailed past self-indulgence to become purely flatulent. Yet even those moments were better than the cell-phones-in-the-air anthems, because the group was only masturbating, not pandering.

In comparison, although it was only half an hour long, Gnarls Barkley's opening set was much more adventurous. Danger Mouse and Green joined their 10 backing musicians, including the four female string players comprising the "G-string section," dressed as English prep school students to deliver a cover of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2." There aren't many better ways to get an arena on your side than to have it join in on a refrain of "We don't need no education."

The group's cover of the Violent Femmes' "Gone Daddy Gone" was also enthusiastically received, though its originals were just as strong, and nothing could top its celebratory version of "Crazy." With his place as one of the most distinctive frontmen in rock history secured, Green introduced the hit as both "the song that made me rich and famous" and "the song of the year -- I don't care what anybody says!"

And regardless of what Grammy voters decided a few weeks ago, he was right.