The Flaming Lips are one of my favorite bands. Pigeonholed as a stoner band, they began as a punk act out of Oklahoma City before their single “She Don’t Use Jelly,” off their more indie-friendly Transmissions from the Satellite Heart album became a hit. Since then they’ve evolved into a more ambient sound collage that varies from sweet and introspective to heart-hammering rhythms, none of it ever boring or predictable. They do concept albums now, from the anime-influenced Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots to their latest, Pink Floyd-esque Embryonic double disc. And speaking of Floyd, they recorded their own version of Dark Side of the Moon for iTunes, and while that album is iconic, their version is quite interesting and enjoyable.
At the Wellmont in Montclair, their first encore was the end of that Floyd album, a minimalist emotional barrage of “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse” with the audience singing along. They really are a band that must be experienced in concert. I was told this, but they mostly play festivals, which I normally loathe for their expense, remote location, weekend-long length, and the faux Woodstock feel of a place that charges $5 for a bottle of water. So when they booked a local show, I jumped on it. I ended up going with Firecracker and Milky, who’d both listened to the band but weren’t as big a fan as I am, but they also had a great time. I bet you’d have a great time even if you didn’t know any of the songs. Singer and front man Wayne Coyne is a charismatic and caring showman, and tells you straight up that they don’t do a lot of shows because they want each one to be a unique experience.
Before they played, he warned that the light show might be disorienting, and that he was going to crowdsurf in a giant hamsterball- an inflatable sphere he calls his spaceball- so get to the sides if you don’t want to hold it up. He got really close to us as they opened up and he rolled out. The show starts with a bang, with confetti cannons blasting, and a few dozen 3 foot wide balloons being released onto the audience, so you can play volleyball. They really engage the audience beyond all expectations, and make their show a memorable experience. There’s a video screen behind them, which they walk out of an image of a woman giving birth- embryonic indeed. The stage is full of singers and dancers in costumes wearing cyborg sunglasses, giraffe masks, and day-glo orange clothes, who’ll bounce the balloons back into the audience. Sometimes the band will pop the confetti-filled balloons with their guitars, or Wayne will put on a pair of enormous hands that shoot green lasers into the smoke-filled air. And they say thank you after every song, reminding you that they’re having just as good a time as you are.
They played a good mix of their repertoire, new and old, but few songs off their biggest albums: Yoshimi, and The Soft Bulletin. That album was a fave of mine for a long time, but I didn’t miss it. They did a sing-along of Yoshimi, a few acoustic versions of shorter songs, and a crowd-blasting rendition of last album’s “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” off of At War with the Mystics, a favorite. The final encore was possibly their most famous song, dedicated to a 16-year old friend of the band who lost his father to cancer last Christmas. It’s a song that’s been used at funerals in movies, and the one that made me a fan of the band: “Do You Realize?” It has truly beautiful lyrics that simply remind you of the fragility of life and to keep focused on what’s important.
Do You Realize – that you have the most beautiful face
Do You Realize – we’re floating in space –
Do You Realize – that happiness makes you cry
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
They also kept their promise of playing “Taps” at every show until the Iraq War is over, showing the audience a mechanical bugle that the military now uses for funerals, because there aren’t enough trumpet players to keep up with the demand. I liked that even seven years later they kept to it, reminding us that we have soldiers overseas in harm’s way. May they all come home safe and soon.
Amusingly enough, they sell a silvery t-shirt that reads, “I saw the Flaming Lips in concert and it made me a better human being!” And I think they mean it without irony, because it truly seems what they want to accomplish by making their music and playing it for us. There are a lot of gracious showmen out there, but Wayne Coyne seems the most authentic. I’m glad I finally got to see them perform, and I hope to catch them again the next time they come around. It may not make you a better human being, but you’ll want to try, at least for a couple of days. Then play one of their albums to remind yourself again.
© 2010 Thomas Pluck.