The Flaming Lips. Red Rocks. 05.26.16
The Flaming Lips are never one to skimp on production. In 2002, “The Unlimited Sunshine Tour” contained foam guns, giant bubble screens, and Yoshimi battling those pesky pink robots. In 2009, it was hard for the natural beauty of Red Rocks to compete with the barrage of technological eye candy thrown at an unsuspecting audience. Wayne Coyne traversed the venue in a man-sized space ball that night, as dozens of smaller balls bounced around him, making the music almost secondary to the pageantry. Then, in 2011, they brought Dorothy and her cast of characters straight from Oz to assist in a (mis)interpretation of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
Last night was no exception. Although, for the first time ever, the production costs actually went into broadening the sonic enjoyment of the show, rather than just the heady visual spectacle the fearless freaks are known for. Employing the world-renowned German conductor, André de Ridder, to lead the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (as well as a 50+ person choir) through a live rendition of The Soft Bulletin at Red Rocks was a grand undertaking that took years to come to fruition, but it also just might have been the greatest decision The Flaming Lips have ever made when it comes to a live performance.
Dusk was upon us and the heavy rains were kept at bay, but a light drizzle threatened to build into the forecast storm. André de Ridder was leading the symphony through the last movement of Dvořák’s “New World”, and as the piece came to a close he was feeling the realities of being at such a high elevation. He shook it off and continued to wave his arms and do his other conductorial duties as the musicians took us through Stravinsky’s “The Firebird”; providing a live rendition of a song The Flaming Lips have piped out prior to many shows past.
Wayne Coyne was on stage well before the main event. Always eschewing a formal entrance, the Benjamin Button of indie rock was out walking around and interacting with various people as his crew set up gear in a horizontal line toward the front of the stage. After overseeing the final preparations, Coyne was joined by the rest of the Lips (expanded to a 6-piece band for this performance) as the ensemble of singers and musicians took their places on the other side of a clear barrier. Already looking like a grey-haired madman from another world, the ringmaster had a goofy smile and the wide eyes of a child as he made his way onto the podium. Wearing a pink shirt with the words “My Heart is Nuclear”, as well as colorful fuzzy balls on his silver pants, socks, and wrists, he would soon complete the picture with a robe of plastic (LED-lined) strips and a heavy neon crown. The show was about to begin, but first…
A man of many words, Coyne never just busts into song. He has to introduce and familiarize himself with his audience first. “Look everybody, there is the really real Santa Claus!” he exclaimed, pointing to a man who seriously came dressed as old Saint Nick. Then came the public service announcement. This type of show had never been done before, so it would be recorded, and we would be expected to go “fucking crazy!” when he asked us to, although the actual ‘asking’ part would be cut out of the recording so it would seem we were just spontaneously “going fucking crazy!” He went on like that for a bit and then, when he felt the time was right, the show finally began…
The Soft Bulletin really was played in its entirety from front to back, starting with “Race for the Prize” and continuing directly into “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton”. The last line from that second track was repeated over and over again, with members of the choir coming out into the audience to help urge us along. “The sound they made was love…love, love, love, love, love, love, love…”
Commenting on the choir members’ decision to come out among the crowd, Coyne accused them of being “very brave,” but also “very drunk.” His ongoing humor and ridiculous attire provided much needed levity in what could have been an overwhelmingly emotional experience. I’ve seen the Colorado Symphony augment other rock concerts (indie, alternative, and otherwise) and my high expectations have never been met by performances where the source material was altered a little too much. The Soft Bulletin is one of those albums that was just made for that type of augmentation. Honestly, hearing the album performed with a full string section and the combined voice of the choir made me feel like I was hearing the true version for the very first time.
The first noticeable difference about the show vs. other Flaming Lips performances was the lack of visuals. The natural rock backdrop was exposed due to the absence of the giant screen common at so many Flaming Lips shows. There were white strands descending from the overhang above the stage, and simple LED lights rained down them and into Coyne’s robe, before continuing into similar strands that extended out from the stage like an infinity pool. It was simple, understated, yet extremely moving.
Forgoing the customized visuals and props in favor of bringing a classic album to life, the band came across as personal and almost intimate — two words I would have never used to describe a Flaming Lips show in the past. But the kid in Coyne wouldn’t allow himself to give up all his toys; hence the few flaws in what could have been a perfect show. The first one manifested itself during “The Spiderbite Song”. The headdress/crown that hung behind Coyne’s head was not staying in place, causing the contraption to choke him. He kept yanking at it like a dog trying to remove the shame of his surgery cone. It became extremely distracting and could have been avoided by leaving that particular piece of wardrobe at home. Luckily he took it off before he performed “The Observer” from under an inflatable rainbow in front of the stage. He never put it back on.
The rainbow itself almost posed a problem as well. “I have to say, there was a moment when I doubted the rainbow.” It ended up working out, but later in the night there was a space ball malfunction that didn’t exactly ruin the “Space Oddity” cover, but didn’t exactly add much to it either.
Those few things aside, it really was the beautiful night Coyne claimed it to be. The thunderstorms and heavy showers passed us by and it was a cool, but comfortable experience on the Rocks. “There was fear about the rain – fuck the rain!” And the musical performances were nothing less than stellar. The audience joined the choir to impersonate a swarm of insects during “Buggin’”; the barebones version of “Waitin’ for a Superman” was outstanding; and I never want to hear “Suddenly Everything Has Changed” without orchestral and choral assistance ever again. The only issues with “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” and “Sleeping On the Roof” was that they marked the end of the album cycle.
At one point in the night Coyne introduced the band to those who might have “just walked in here and said fuck it, there’s a show going, let’s get fucked up.” I would have felt sorry for those folks at any other Flaming Lips show, but I could imagine total strangers to the sounds of Flaming Lips walking in and being blown away by last night’s performance. The lead singer and lyrical content were eccentric and bizarre, there was no doubt about that, but the music was objectively stunning. And the magic really only exists in the music…not in the costumes or in the words being said. Coyne summed it up best during his intro to “Suddenly Everything Has Changed”…
“For the longest time people would asked what does The Soft Bulletin mean? It seems it has a secret unspeakable meaning about it. Being here with André and his great ensemble, we get a bigger sense of how some things that we think we are able to express, or say, or think to ourselves – can only really be done through music. I’m sure there is a very smart scientist out there figuring out what music does to our brains. I know when you’re feeling sad, sometimes people’s reaction is to be happy. We found when you are sad the only thing that helps is knowing that the sadness is in all of us. Even though it’s sad, it’s the greatest fucking comfort there can be. There are moments in this song where we try to overcome that sadness.”
Heavy stuff? Yeah. A speech influenced by marijuana? Absolutely. It made all the sense in the world in that moment though. But it would have been cruel to leave us dwelling on the questions of sadness and buried in the meaning of music, so instead, we battled some pink robots with Yoshimi, before joining together to sing the former state song of Oklahoma…which just happens to be the happiest song ever written about everybody you know dying.
Anyone who was not a flaming lip was excused from the stage for the second encore. Coyne appeared behind the soundboard in the middle of Red Rocks in his inflating ball to give tribute to Bowie. The ball never fully inflated, but at that point we were just happy to be hearing more music. The night ended with copious amounts of confetti (seriously, like almost too much) blasting into the crowd as the band used “The W.A.N.D.” to bestow “the power” on their unbridled audience. The grownups had left the stage, so it was time for the kids to play. And as much as I had appreciated and enjoyed seeing a mature Flaming Lips perform their own songs in a way that paid respect to their songcraft, it was also pretty fucking cool to go “fucking crazy” under a storm of confetti while a 55-year-old man with fuzzy balls on his crotch invited us all back to his hotel room to get tattoos to commemorate the night – just one more amazing night in this crazy circus called life.
Race for the Prize
A Spoonful Weighs a Ton
The Spark That Bled
The Spiderbite Song
What Is the Light?
Waitin’ for a Superman
Suddenly Everything Has Changed
Feeling Yourself Disintegrate
Sleeping on the Roof
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1
Do You Realize??