Quarantine Classic Concerts: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s December 1991 Tour
The tour was for only one epic week -- but its importance is still felt nearly 30 years later
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana and Pearl Jam all together on one bill. It doesn’t get more ‘90s than this. It couldn’t.
You could catch Topanga from Boy Meets World pumping up her Reebok Pumps, rocking a Bootleg Bart Simpson t-shirt and writing notes in her Newton…and it still wouldn’t get more ‘90s than this.
This had to be a tour concocted in an alt-rock lab, presumably overseen by Kevin and Bean from KROQ.
You’d be forgiven for not even knowing this three-headed monster of a tour existed. After all, it lasted for less than a week in December 1991. Cricket matches have gone longer.
And yes, the word “tour” is being used loosely here. But cut us some slack. This was such a stacked marquee that — even if fleeting — we still had to celebrate it as we continue to look back on a few classic concerts via YouTube. While most of us are stuck under stay-at-home orders, this is debatably as good as it gets.
As far as timing, this mini-tour couldn’t have been better. After more than half a decade churning out records and non-stop touring, the Chili Peppers finally crossed over with Blood Sugar Sex Magik with its release on Sept. 24 of that year. Yet that date in rock history doesn’t even belong to them, with Nirvana putting out Nevermind on the same day. A month earlier, Pearl Jam had burst onto the scene with their debut, Ten. Needless to say, It was a good time to be a rock fan.
This leg of the tour, which fit within RHCP’s massive Blood Sugar Sex Magik Tour, kicked off at the crusty LA Sports Arena on Dec. 27 and wrapped up with a New Year’s Eve show at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. In between, there were stops in San Diego, Tempe and The Ritz in New York City. In total, there were five shows. That’s it, that’s the tour. If you got tickets as a Christmas or Hanukkah gift, congratulations.
Let’s get to the music.
Pearl Jam was the opener and as you might expect, it’s kinda hard to find nearly-30-year-old clips of this tour on YouTube. But that’s not going to stop us. Here’s one solid recording of “Alive” from the NYE show, complete with a stage dive from young Eddie Vedder.
“Even Flow” was also a staple, as you’d expect. We’re bending the rules slightly, but here’s a great clip from a summer ‘91 show in Seattle:
Hardcore fans should also check out this video of their full 35-minute set from the Cow Palace. Highlights include a very brief cover of Fugazi’s “Waiting Room,” Flea joining the band for “Leash” another brief cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” along with a few smashed guitars.
That NYE show ended up representing a changing of the guard a bit. Rolling Stone, in a review of the show, said RHCP, Nirvana and Pearl Jam “overshadowed” local icons Grateful Dead (who performed that night at the Oakland Coliseum Arena), who by that point held a two-decade stranglehold on being the show in town when it came to New Year’s Eve. This young, hungry trio of bands came to town and blew that to smithereens. It was the musical equivalent of upstaging the pope at The Vatican.
Nirvana, in particular, stood out, with Rolling Stone saying the “night clearly belonged” to them.
“Members of the mosh pit, which stretched from the stage to the back of the arena, were being thrown in the air like clods of dirt caught up in a live minefield,” the review continued. “By the time Nirvana threw in its hit ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in midset, the crowd had risen up, rolling forward in a relentless wave of motion.”
Sounds like a pretty good middle act.
Even without the live video, you’ll probably still enjoy this crisp clip of “Come as You Are” from the Cow Palace show:
Non-bandwagon fans probably enjoyed Nirvana mixing in a few cuts from Bleach, their 1989 debut album, on this tour, too. We’re bending the rules again, but here’s a great version of “About a Girl” filmed in Seattle in 1991:
In a brief interview from before the band played at the LA Sports Arena, is another hidden YouTube gem. You’ll notice Kurt Cobain’s reddish-pink hair at this time was eerily similar to the neon pink background on the cover of Ten. Coincidence, or maybe a tip of the cap to a fellow Seattle band? Who knows. Anyway, Cobain, together with a precocious Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, shows off his sardonic side in this interview.
“I think the only thing I was inspired by was ‘The Chipmunks Sing The Beatles’ album,’” Cobain deadpans. “It’s better than The Beatles, better than the real McCoy.”
Jokes aside, Nirvana still found time to rip, even while being held to a 45-minute set. This version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” from the tour’s stop at the Del Mar Fairgrounds still holds up years later:
Alright, moving onto the main attraction. For the Red Hot Chili Peppers, let’s start off with a blistering rendition of “Higher Ground,” from their Dec. 30 show at The Ritz. Fair warning: you may be completely thrown off seeing Flea without any dye in his hair.
By this point, the Chilis were the elder statesmen of the tour. One member of the band, Chad Smith, had even turned 30. But after years of grinding, this was probably RHCP at their apex. By late ‘91, Anthony Kiedis had been sober for several years — and he had his rap-rock thing down to a science. (He was also coming off a cameo as an aggro surfer who gets his foot shot off in Point Break.) John Frusciante was already established as one of the best young guitar maestros around. Flea, as you just saw in the previous clip, was running on all cylinders. And Smith wasn’t dealing with endless whispers during shows that he really did look like Will Ferrell.
It didn’t hurt that they were touring behind their most important album, either. (Thanks for the help, Rick Rubin.) Check out the band blitzing through “Suck My Kiss” in The Bay, five months before they’d release it as a single:
This piece doesn’t have a chance of running unless “Under the Bridge” is included, but unfortunately the concert editions from ‘91 on YouTube are rough. That’s alright, though, because it gives me a good excuse to share this rooftop version, led by just Anthony and John, from earlier in the tour:
Going back to the full gang, check out this clip of “Give It Away” from their NYC show.
And we’ll end it with the last song ever played on this tour — a Chili Peppers cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic.”
This leg of the Blood Sugar Tour may have been too short, but that’s why it’s worth remembering — and why it’s still looked at as the Holy Grail of early ‘90s alt shows.