Red Hot Chili Peppers start fast, finish strong, leave before fireworks at ACL Fest

Yes, there were fireworks—with or without the headliners.

Longtime fans of the Austin City Limits Music Festival can be forgiven for their lukewarm response to spring’s news that the Red Hot Chili Peppers were playing. They did so in 2012 and 2018, and the band hasn’t enjoyed a crossover mainstay pop hit since 2006’s “Stadium Arcadium.”

What we forgot is that after a decade, John Frusciante’s back in the band. The longtime guitar player, off-again and on-again for the Peppers since the ‘80s, is central to the band’s explosive chemistry. With him in tow, all the marbles are in the bag. Chad Smith pummels his jazz-influenced fills, here with an homage to deceased Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins stenciled on his bass drum. Flea, wearing a purple mesh shirt and sporting green-and-pink-dyed hair, showed off the slap-bass proficiency that inspired a legion of teens to pick up a Peavey and Google “Californication bass tabs.” Singer Anthony Kiedis still writhes like a daydreaming skateboarder.

“I feel like I’m in a sauna with just a few of my close friends from Texas,” Kiedis told American Express stage fans Sunday night. It was definitely a hot one — even if the set wrapped 30 minutes before its listed two-hour allotment.

Here’s five ways the Red Hot Chili Peppers delivered a wildly satisfying, top-shelf performance at ACL, even if they left before the traditional barrage of Sunday night fireworks.

ACL attendees filled up the lawn

On a spectrum from Paul McCartney’s 2018 Beatles meltdown to Lionel Ritchie’s awesome-but-spacious 2013 ACL performance, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were a solid 7 out of 10 for crowded enthusiasm. Toward the front of the stage, it was certainly more jammed than, say, Pearl Jam’s 2014 closing set. Remember: Music snobs whining on Twitter about an also-ran booking are not indicative of the populous at-large.

RHCP performed a loose, crafty show worth recording on your phone

Even on crowd-pleasing classics, the band noodled. Wild, rolling fills by Smith. Intense solos wherein Frusciante stood by his wall of Marshall cabs and shredded. Flea did a headstand and walked on his hands. They covered the intro to the Clash’s “London Calling” for some reason.

Red Hot Chili Peppers started fast

The quartet, assisted only by keyboardist Chris Warren, began with a loose, playful jam and then anchored their performance with a big three of giant alt rock hits: “Can’t Stop,” followed by “Dani California” and then the inescapable-in-2000 “Scar Tissue.” You remember it — pre-Genius no one knew the lyrics were “with the birds I share this lonely view.”

RHCP finished stronger

The set’s backend deployed “Californication’s” meditative and grandiose title track, the raunchy and riotous “Give It Away,” and 20-year-old “By the Way” as the set-closer and sole encore.

“Let’s do this again,” Kiedis said on his way out. (They are back for Weekend Two.)

OK, so it only went 85 minutes out of the allotted 120 listed on the schedule

After, befuddled patrons whistled while others lamented getting short-changed. And while anthems like “Under the Bridge” were healthy scratches from tonight’s batch, this reporter is leaving Zilker Park thrilled at the concentrated and considered outline.

Plus there were hilariously elaborate fireworks without a band on stage.