Boarding a train at Kings Cross at 2pm on an overcast Saturday afternoon, we spot a group of four men: all in their mid-40s, donned in black trousers/band t-shirt/battered walking boots combo, quietly discussing the playing styles of current and former RHCP guitarists Josh Klinghoffer and John Frusciante.
As we walk further down the carriage, we’re confronted with a group of 17/18-year-olds sporting RHCP jackets and sparkling Converse, blasting ‘By The Way’ through a painfully tinny set of mini speakers.
This 25-minute train journey was a microcosm of the 80,000-capacity open-air concert at Knebworth Park we were on our way to see, with there proving to be a marked difference between those fans that got onboard with RHCP pre- and post-1991’s ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’.
The event organisers had clearly tried to accommodate the latter group to a greater degree judging by the choice of support acts: Reverend and the Makers, The Wombats and Dizzee Rascal; the former and the latter of which receive a distinctly mixed response.
We arrive just as Reverend and the Makers are receiving a hefty bottling from the crowd, with green cider bottles assaulting the air from all directions; a recycling nightmare for whoever has to clean this lot up later. It’s 5pm and already the crowd appear to have little tolerance of middle-of-the-road guitar drudgery. The band appears unfazed, but the lack of crowd interaction suggests they sense the underlying hostility and make a swift exit after a semi-rousing rendition of ‘Heavyweight Champion of the World’.
The Wombats, however, appear to gain support from the crowd within two bars of their opening number, with the sunny riffs of ‘Kill the Director’ and follow-up track ‘Moving to New York’ rousing even the most po-faced rocker. It’s a set stuffed to the gills with catchy vocal hooks and glorious pop pentameter, with each track sounding as if it should be the soundtrack to a road trip scene in The Inbetweeners. No, it’s not bulldozing down any musical barriers, but it’s good fun and disarms the crowd of their bottle-throwing antics in favour of mid-tempo moshing.
30 minutes later, the sound of sirens is pumped through the speakers at a decibel-defying level. As rotating blue font fills the big screens bearing the words ‘Dizzee Rascal’, and the man himself bounds onstage to inform us that this ‘is the sound of the police’. Half the crowd roars voraciously, the other half turn their backs to the stage and nonchalantly sip their drinks, clearly unimpressed with the choice of pre-headliner. Early grime material from ‘Boy in da Corner’ and ‘Showtime’ receive minimal response from the crowd, and it’s only when the radio-friendly material is cracked out that the appreciation proliferates and the motionless are the minority. An odd choice of support act for RHCP, but the big beats and throbbing bassline of closing track ‘Bonkers’ keeps everyone in good spirits.
Another half an hour passes and finally, after hours of anticipation, the seasoned professionals arrive. With a career spanning almost three decades, Red Hot Chili Peppers have created a slick set that fuses together their hits with instrumental solos that are so technically magnificent it almost makes your nose bleed. A guitar face-off between Flea and Klinghoffer, a bass jam from Flea and a drum solo to kick-off the encore are the multi-coloured stitches in the rich tapestry that is a RHCP set, sewn together by stadium anthems such as ‘Can’t Stop’ and ‘By the Way’, alongside the two-finger salute that is ‘Suck my Kiss’ and the gloriously melancholic ‘Under the Bridge’. A beautiful moment occurs during ‘Californication’, when a flaming lantern is released in the crowd, flying diagonally across our view of the stage, while bird silhouettes fill the large screens – a moment that makes you want to take a deep breath and smile at life’s magnificence.
To counter the sublime moments, however, there are the surreal. RHCP don’t seem big on crowd interaction, and when this does occur it’s Flea rather than Kiedis that takes on the banter baton, although the term ‘banter’ doesn’t really encompass what goes on. Halfway through the set, Flea warns us not ‘to drink out of the toilet bowl’, which is followed by a mumbled utterance featuring the words ‘friend’ and ‘toilet bowl’. A few of us look round in confusion; everyone else is either used to this nonsensical chatter or is too wasted to care. Before anyone has time to think about what’s happened, a bass rift kicks in and the band launches into ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’; all is forgotten.
An altogether impressive set from RHCP, with the band’s musicianship second-to-none (no counter arguments accepted). The group’s crowd interaction leaves much to be desired, but when you’re surrounded by 80,000 people pogoing voraciously in the face of The British Summer, you can’t help but raise a smile and join in.
Words: Wendy Davies
Photo: PG Brunelli