Red Hot Chili Peppers Were Not Trying to Instigate Woodstock ’99 Riot With ‘Fire’ Cover
The Woodstock '99 documentary Woodstock '99: Peace, Love and Rage is now airing on HBO and HBO Max, detailing the chaotic 1999 concert, including the fiery finale of the event which saw fires erupting throughout the grounds as Red Hot Chili Peppers performed their cover of the Jimi Hendrix classic "Fire." But according to Chad Smith, the band's response to what was going on at the time may not be as premeditated as it looked.
The festivities had already turned quite rowdy by the time Red Hot Chili Peppers were set to close out the music weekend. Three days of extreme heat and humidity with little shade on the concrete grounds had taken its toll on the audience who had grown angry while dealing with high prices, water shortages and bathroom issues.
The anti-violence group PAX had intended to showcase for the viewing audience a moment of unification handing out candles to audience members as a vigil for those recently lost during the Columbine shooting as the band was playing "Under the Bridge," but instead the candles lit the fuse of the audience rage, being used to set fires to much of the trash and some dismantled plywood paneling from the peace fence that had collected over the course of the weekend.
While the documentary shows promoter John Scher interrupting the Chili Peppers set, explaining something to singer Anthony Kiedis and then addressing the audience about having crews come in to put out the fires and pleading for safety, it also then features the band launching into their cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire" after the announcement.
While speaking with Yahoo!, Smith recalls the incident and explains they were not attempting to add fuel to the proverbial fire with their performance of the Hendrix classic, but rather it was already part of their set as yet another nod tying the '99 edition to the 1969 festival.
“I remember we were getting ready to go on, and they were going to do [a tribute] to [original Woodstock ’69 performer] Jimi Hendrix after we played,” Smith explained. “His sister came to us, and we'd met her before; we'd done some other stuff with the Hendrix Experience. And she said, ‘Hey, I know you guys do Jimi Hendrix songs. What do you think if I could get a Hendrix song before, like as your last song before the tribute thing, you know? It'd be kind of a nice segue.’ And we're like, ‘OK, that sounds cool.’”
The group hadn't played "Fire" since 1991, but had rehearsed it prior to the performance and were good to go with their Hendrix cover. The drummer recalls, "The set was going good. We're playing our little songs, and everybody seemed to be having a good time.” Smith says he could see some fires in the distance but didn't think too much of it, even after Scher's interruption in the set.
"I noticed, like, far away — and you've got to remember, the place was huge, so it looked like a mile away — was this kind of fire, or something smoking. And it literally looked like a little hamburger stand had a grease fire or something. It looked like nothing from where we were at,” explains Smith. “Towards the end of the set, we get the word that, ‘Hey, the promoter [John Scher] wants to come on and say something, that there's a fire, and they want to put out the fire.’"
“So we stopped. [Scher] made an announcement, like, ‘Hey, people, let the firemen come in,’ or something to that effect: ‘Let [the firemen] do their thing.’ And that was kind of it," he continued. "He didn't tell us not to play, or to stop. It didn't seem like he was really freaking out or anything. It was just kind of like when people say onstage, ‘Hey guys, chill out, take a step back.’ That sort of shit happens all the time."
John Scher Interrupts Red Hot Chili Peppers at Woodstock '99 to Address Fires
“So, [Scher] went offstage and we started playing again, and the fire got a little bit bigger. But, again, it was so far away; to me, from my perspective, it really didn't look like much. I had really no idea. I swear to God, it was really hard to gauge the severity of it.”
The drummer says that there was some band discussion before playing their Hendrix cover and they agreed to go ahead and do it. "We're just doing our thing and rocking out, having a great time. Boom! We finished, get offstage, we leave, get out of there before the crowds. And get home, I go to bed,” recalls the drummer, adding that even as they played they had no idea the severity of what was going on with the audience, with the crowd then rioting and police having to eventually disperse the remaining rioters in the hours after the festival concluded.
“The next morning, I get up, I'm in the airport, and I'm looking up at CNN or whatever the news that's on the airport television,” he adds. “They're like, ‘Yesterday's Woodstock festival, they had the Dave Matthews Band and Jewel, and it was all really nice. And then… the Red Hot Chili Peppers played, and all hell broke loose!’ And I'm like, ‘What?’ And they show the fires, and I am like, ‘Oh my God. Oh shit.’ We really looked like we were instigating — that we were the bad guys."
“We were merely paying homage to the great Jimi Hendrix. I guess people obviously didn't know that Jimi Hendrix's sister came back and asked us to play that," says Smith. "Could we have picked another Hendrix song? Probably. But that's the one we rehearsed and that we knew. So yeah, I guess the timing of it wasn’t so great.”
Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Fire" (Woodstock '99)
Smith, now two decades removed from the chaotic events of the festival, tells Yahoo!, “Obviously the promoters who were organizing the show didn't really organize it very well. So that, and then you're on your third day of a hot July thing, and you're a young kid, and you're not used to this, maybe you're going to do some squirrelly shit. But it wasn't everybody, just a few bad apples.”