After arriving late due to parking lot traffic (my house in Urbana isn’t that close, and I was busy eating a cheese quesadilla anyways), I was able to catch the last few songs of Gnarls Barkley’s set.

Too bad I couldn’t have missed it completely.

Decked out in a variety of knee socks, white button-down shirts, red tartan and striped ties, Gnarls Barkley and their 10 back-up counterparts looked like a mix between Avril Lavigne, uniforms from School of Rock and Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” music video, while sounding almost as bad as all three combined.

The songs I did show up in time for were lifeless, live renditions of St. Elsewhere’s addictive, hyper-pop polished tracks. During “Crazy,” Cee-Lo’s rough, raspy voice showed signs of damage and wear, probably due to the long-term effects from wailing its high-pitched chorus.

Gnarls’ onstage musical entourage – including the four-piece electric orchestral quartet dubbed “The G Strings” – put on a strong visual show with tacky costumes and high-energy dance-grooving, but moving around a lot couldn’t distract an overall unimpressed audience from their low-quality musical performance.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers, who hit the stage about 45 minutes later, were an interesting juxtaposition against their opening act. Standing below a technologically elaborate set – complete with four flat-screen panels that continuously switched positions, two sets of grid-like LED light bars and five chandelier-esque lighting pieces – their visual appearance never overshadowed their music, like Gnarls’. While Cee-Lo’s voice seemed weathered, Anthony Kiedis’ shrills still thrill, even after decades full of singing.

What was quite notable, and possibly the bigest difference between the two, was RHCP’s intense, natural energy. Drummer Chad Smith, bassist Flea and guitarist John Frusciante had incredible charisma and on-stage chemistry, while Kiedis’ summation of a true rock singer solidified the group’s remarkable concert and the reason why they’ve been successful for so long.

There were lowlights, however. Kiedis tended to emulate a lost puppy during instrumental sections, and they played the pathetically plagiarized single “Dani California,” which is a clear and blatant Tom Petty rip-off.

But, after seeing their mediocre performance as Lollapalooza’s headliner last summer, I was surprised by how much more impressive this show was. The hard rock and heavily drummed “Me and My Friends” was one of the highlights, with Flea stating, “That song was in the Top 40 for 11 weeks … right next to Culture Club’s ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me,'” followed by an amusing tease of the song by Frusciante.

The sweetly strong vocal harmonies of “Snow (Hey Oh)” energized the hungover, post-Unofficial audience members, while “By the Way” featured captivating switches between sharp, quick pre-choruses and calmer melodic verses. The “Soul To Squeeze” encore, with an introductory drum solo that morphed into all but Kiedis banging on drums, was a great way to end the show.

In the day and age of technological recording effects, genre-blurring and attempted reinventions, it’s nice to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a rock band with raw talent, keeping it real and doing it right.

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