Kelefa Sanneh, New York Times:
Looking for an easy way to ruin your band? Try this: grow up, chill out, dig in. Shed your we-use-''party''-as-a-verb reputation and rededicate yourselves to musicianship. Embrace balladry. Allow the guitarist to sing.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers, now celebrating their 20th anniversary, have done all of these things. And yet somehow, the results are spectacular. On Tuesday night, the band came to Madison Square Garden for an extraordinary two-hour performance, full of wildly inventive playing and -- even better -- lovely songs.
It has taken the band a long time to get this good, and perhaps it couldn't have done it any faster. Its previous incarnation as a jovial punk-funk act gave the members lots of opportunity to blow off steam. Then came a hit album (''Blood Sugar Sex Magik'') and a disappointment (''One Hot Minute,'' made without the virtuosic guitarist John Frusciante).
When the group was reborn in 1999 with ''Californication,'' the old manic energy had mellowed into an appealing restlessness. Instead of furious bass riffs and squealing guitar parts, the new Red Hot Chili Peppers emphasize loosely tangled instrumental lines. Anthony Kiedis -- who, like two other band members, Flea and Chad Smith, is 40 -- has mainly switched from rapping to crooning, often joined by Mr. Frusciante's falsetto.
On Tuesday night, some of the only misfires were old songs -- the concert ended with a tuneless version of ''Me and My Friends,'' from 1987. By contrast, the new stuff sounded great, especially the songs from the group's most recent album, ''By the Way'' (Warner Brothers).
There was an exhilarating version of ''Can't Stop,'' which re-enacts scenes from the band's musical history: it struts, it swoons, it lilts, it explodes. On ''Don't Forget Me,'' the bassist, Flea, strummed chords, while Mr. Frusciante contributed a gorgeous guitar line that bubbled and hissed like some sort of chemical reaction. And ''Throw Away Your Television'' used Mr. Smith's polyrhythmic drumming to anchor Flea's restive bass line and Mr. Frusciante's severe guitar part, which consisted largely of silence.
Mr. Frusciante makes an unlikely star: at 33, he isn't an original member (the founding guitarist, Hillel Slovak, died of a heroin overdose in 1988), and he's the one band member who has an easy time keeping his shirt on. And yet he was as riveting onstage as he is on record, sometimes bending in half in time to the music and sometimes skipping in circles, but never missing a note.
While Mr. Frusicante seems to be happily ensconced in his own world, Mr. Kiedis is an irrepressible showoff, with a fondness for ridiculous mime-meets-break-dance poses. His antics ensure that the group doesn't take itself too seriously, just as his limited vocal range ensures that the band keeps its melodies simple and sweet.
Mr. Kiedis is also that rare singer who sounds best in an arena; the noise and echoes make it hard to hear his lyrics, which remain the band's greatest weakness. It's easier to enjoy the breezy drum-machine beat of ''The Zephyr Song'' when you can't hear him deliver doggerel like ''Rebel and a liberator/ Find a way to be a skater/ Rev it up to levitate her/ Super friendly aviator.''
Even so, Mr. Kiedis deserves much of the credit for his band's evolution. By yielding the spotlight a little bit, he has helped his bandmates explore new ideas. And if the shy Mr. Frusciante has not become the band's new leader, he has nevertheless become its guiding spirit.
Early in the night, Mr. Frusciante approached the microphone between songs, warbling the chorus from Donna Summer's disco hit ''I Feel Love.'' Mr. Smith struck up a robotic beat and Flea did a nimble imitation of the song's electronic bassline. If the band had tried this 10 years ago it might have come across as a joke, but on Tuesday night it sounded like the beginning of yet another musical adventure.