Ticket Price: $40
Hands down, Oklahoma’s The Flaming Lips were my favourite band of the noughties — if we can begin that decade in 1999 with their first stone classic, The Soft Bulletin — and were the act I had most wanted to see live during that time. Their live show isn’t really about precisely replicating the meticulously produced albums. Instead, it’s an audio-visual mindfuck, and one that they’ve been perfecting for some time now, developing and evolving a singular aesthetic and performance reputation that transmits as a kind of Lynchian psychedelia. To attend a Flaming Lips concert is to dive down into the rabbit hole in order to play in a lysergic sandbox filled with hypnotic tunes and a beating heart.
And large balloons. Lots of them.
My verdict after years of anticipation? Put it this way: I had pretty high expectations for this show, and despite the fact that they played only a handful of the tunes I most wanted to hear — and nothing from The Soft Bulletin!, not even my favourite Lips song of all, “Race For the Prize” — and didn’t have a number of the live stages aspects I was looking forward to (no dancing furries, no sing-a-long nun hand puppet, although I did see this Walrus/amphibian thing at one point), the Flaming Lips still exceeded my expectations. It was an exhilarating, 90 minute-ish sensory overload. This was the best show I saw in all of 2010.
That the Lips are even here almost 30 years on is something in and of itself. An amusing oddity back on the college rock scene in the ‘80s, and then a more focussed proposition of bent alt-rock in the ‘90s with albums such as Transmissions from the Satellite Heart and Clouds Taste Metallic, The Flaming Lips had their delayed moment of true greatness and glory with the double whammy of Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. And I played the shit out of both of them.
About as good as a Saturday night gets with your clothes on (All Photos by Cublet).
The early-to-mid ‘00s were often difficult times for Cublet and me. It was one of those periods when the skies just seemed to open up and not stop shitting on us. Death, illness, financial woes, nefarious persons, sociopathic nutjob bosses, and beyond-dysfunctional workplaces — it was a low point in both our lives. During that period, those two discs were almost talismanic for me because each ultimately had a message of optimism and positivity but one that came through confronting and acknowledging darkness, not from some cheap new age dogma. This hardened hope spoke to me.
The personal perils and demons that the Lips’ Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd, and Michael Ivins — all roughly my age demographic — endured prior to and during the period when those two albums were crafted are well known among the fanbase. Their experiences informed most of the songs that were written for the two discs, giving a real gravity to the things that Wayne was singing about in his beautifully frail, yearning, sometimes-off-but-always-affecting voice.
It’s one thing to be some clueless Idol-contestant flibbertigibbet oversinging Hallmark treacle about love and happiness and how a peppy smile stapled to your face is all that’s needed to overcome obstacles — as if they have a clue (boy, Gainsbourg got it right with his song about manipulated and manipulating pop puppets with “Poupée de cire, poupée de son”). It’s quite another when the message is coming from someone who has done some real living, experiencing all the genuine loss, devastation, and scars, and then, despite it all, deciding to be joyful and transgressively silly but without glossing over that there aren’t necessarily any guaranteed happy endings. That duality is what made both discs powerful and moving for me. They were coming from people who, each in their own way, understood.
In Bradley Beesley’s excellent 2005 documentary about the band and their you-couldn’t-make-this-up history, The Fearless Freaks, a concert-going fan explains: “I like the whimsical nature of the Lips and how their music is experimental, but it’s not completely of the head, it’s also of the heart.” Amen, sister.
At the start of the film, Wayne beautifully shorthands the bands concerns by saying “we are going to blow up some balloons and we are going to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ and I am going to pour some blood on my head and we are going to sing some songs about death and life and what it means to really be alive.”
I had thought for years that the Flaming Lips would be perfect for Bluesfest, so I was utterly stoked upon finding out they were coming in 2010, headlining the first Saturday night to boot. A large, enthusiastic turnout of 30,000 for a jaw-dropping show proved my feelings correct.
It also doesn’t hurt that Bulletin’s lush yet off-kilter Pet Sounds-eque feel and Yoshimi’s more Kid A-esque electronic landscapes were also packed with fucking great tunes — and are albums in the old sense: not “concept albums” per se, but thematically and sonically consistent, made to be listened to as a single piece,and containing an inner logic.
The Flaming Lips’ key releases from the 1999-2009 period: The Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, At War With the Mystics, and Embryonic (Photo by VA).
The more orthodox follow-up, At War With the Mystics, falls only slightly short of the target, while the return-to-the-old-days experimentalism of 2009’s Embryonic works best as the sum of its parts, more so than when broken down, track by track. Some have complained about the current disc being too haphazard but it can be quite a listen when the mood is right, and one is appropriately, um, enhanced (they also recently issued their cover album of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon with mixed results — although I love the version of “The Great Gig in the Sky” featuring Peaches).
We arrived at Bluesfest on another gorgeously hot July night and worked our way up to a decently close spot in front of the main stage — maybe 100 ft back — as I pondered whether years of anticipation would live up to what I wanted it to be. Shortly before the show began, a twentysomething asked me if I had seen the band before. “No,” I replied, “but I have a good idea of what to expect and I have been jonesin’ to see them for years.” “Don’t worry,” Mr. Sporty Slacker Dude assured me, “I saw them a few months ago and the show was out of this world. Just wait.”
He wasn’t kidding.
Birthed onto the stage by a pulsating cinematic vagina, the Flaming Lips arrived from the womb one at a time. Wayne immediately crawled into his trusty space bubble as the band throbbed through the intro into “Worm Mountain.” Raining confetti, shooting streamers, bobbing and bonking balloons, exhaling smoke machines, bopping cheerleaders, and deeply trippy oversized videos announced that, yes, the party’s started.
The Flaming Lips come out from the womb (literally) and dive into Worm Mountain at the beginning of the mayhem. (YouTuber backpackdave2010B)
Most of the big theatrical rock shows don’t always work for me as they tend to be more about the overblown technology than atmosphere. This felt more like a staged happening to be experienced by an audience/community than ego-excess to be worshipped. I not only love the whacked out, surreal-but-humorous perversity that saturates the show, but also its handmade feel. It has an amateurish quality that humanizes the spectacle, and has more of a “let’s put on a show” spirit rather than “worship our pyrotechnics”: more Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland than Gene Simmons or Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The set list was drawn exclusively from their last three albums proper: Yoshimi, Mystics, and Embryonic, with the inclusion of their big ’90s hit, “She Don’t Use Jelly,” as the sole exception. Live, many of the songs are transformed into extended sing-a-longs, particularly in the case of “Jelly,” “Yoshimi Pt. 1,” “The Yeah, Yeah, Yeah Song,” “Do You Realize?” and “I Can Be A Frog,” wherein Coyne coached the crowd through its role as stand-in for The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O (2009’s Bluesfest closers, along with the Dead Weather). He directed the throng in creating the appropriate cat, wolf, tiger, etc sound effects. I personally most enjoyed being a gila monster, but that’s just me.
“We’ve had a great time hanging around the city, meeting people and getting drunk and smoking pot …” Wayne grins and Bears it during “Silver Trembling Hands.” (YouTuber backpackdave2010B)
Otherwise, the set largely concentrated on some of their moodier, more trance-like pieces, such as “Pompeii Am Götterdämmerung,” “See the Leaves,” and “In the Morning of Magicians,” which meshed well with the disorienting, hypnotic visuals
Closing in near the end of the evening, Wayne discussed the Iraq war and how they’ve vowed to play “Taps” — performed at each American military funeral — “every night until this war in Iraq (comes) to an end.” Wayne then urged everyone in the crowd to “put your hand in the peace sign as intensely as you can, and my ridiculous hope is that some cosmic energy will shoot out of our fucking fingertips and will go up into the atmosphere, and it will be dispersed around the world where this vibe and this atmosphere you’ve created here is needed the most.” While I am usually one to give any kind of magical thinking and/or religion a wide berth, I made the V and indulged Wayne as his heart was in the right place, creating an somber, eerie moment in the night, right before the band launched into a piledriving version of Mystic’s “The W.A.N.D. (The Will Always Negates Defeat).”
Wayne, the Iraq war, magical thinking, peace signs, and “cosmic energy … shoot(ing) out of our fucking fingertips,” before the Lips launch into a piledriving version of “The W.A.N.D.” with a megaphoned Coyne. (YouTuber backpackdave2010B)
The show ended an epic eight-minute rendition of their other best known number, “Do You Realize?” All the visual stops were pulled back out one last time, with the psychotic carnival-vibe contrasted with the deeply felt lyrics, a celebratory ode both to life’s absurdity, beauty, and brevity. I doubt you’ll see too many loony rock spectacles ending the night with lyrics like:
Do you realize
That everyone you know someday will die?
And instead of saying all of your goodbyes
Let them know you realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round
Do you realize
That you have the most beautiful face?
Do you realize?
(The Flaming Lips, Dave Fridmann)
Next On Stage –> Next up is my first compilation entry, featuring bite-sized recaps of shows that I’m not writing full entries for. It will include an overview of the Bluesfest Sunday night following the Flaming Lips, wherein I went for John Hiatt and Levon Helm, and ended up taking a detour over to Rush — and five other nights out between 2008-2011.
Join me for stage-issued threats, a blown opportunity, post-chucklefest aches, a “star” as “guest,” a much needed antidote, an off-the-cuff cover of “Brandy,” and the incredulity of me at a Rush gig.
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