The Flaming Lips

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.

Shonen Knife

I first heard of Shonen Knife back when they covered “Top of the World” for the If I was a Carpenter… tribute album (made re-famous by the inclusion of Sonic Youth’s cover of Superstar in the movie Juno) back in the early ’90s. I didn’t get into them, unfortunately, and unlike my skate-murderer buddy Keith, didn’t go see them when they first toured the States. As luck would have it, they returned to the same venue, Maxwell’s in Hoboken, last Saturday, and I made sure to go see them.
J-pop has gotten immensely more popular in the States since then, and Shonen Knife is more of a J-Rock group actually. They’ve performed in Japan as “The Osaka Ramones” tribute band, to give you an idea of their music. Energetic, lots of fun, with the same silly love of life that most Ramones songs have. Do you like fruits and vegetables? Why not sing about it? Do you have a very bad sense of direction? Maybe you need a Mapmaster. And you should write a song about it. That’s what Shonen Knife is like, with ’60s style guitars and lots of long black hair flying around like Cousin It’s become a headbanger.
Opening bands were Girls at Dawn, who I missed some of- but they had a good set. They did a lovely, poppy cover of Misfits “Last Caress” that really stood out, but I’d hear them play again. Unfortunately they were sort of blown off the stage by Nashville duo Jeff the Brotherhood, who manage to rock your face off with a 3 stringed guitar and a set of drums. They reminded me a lot of early Sabbath and the Melvins, and I liked them so much I bought their album Heavy Days on vinyl. Bonus, it’s grey vinyl and comes with a free digital download of the album. They were a great opening band with lots of energy, and if only the ceiling were higher I’m sure they would have jumped off the amp:
Then Shonen Knife came on, opening with “Konnichiwa,” their standard opening song. Naoko, the guitarist, is the only original gal left, but the new bassist Ritsuko and drummer Etsuko do an amazing job. They have lots of energy too, and you know that they just love rock ‘n roll. And it’s infectious. They played songs old and new, from their lighter poppy early tunes to many tracks off “Heavy Songs” and their new album “Supergroup,” which feel more power punk. As always, they sing in English on American tour, but have Japanese and English versions of their albums. Naoko speaks English well and introduced a lot of the songs, such as “BBQ Party,” saying she wrote it because it’s one of her favorite American foods. My favorite new one was the aforementioned “Mapmaster,” which reminded me of a cross between Ramones and early Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. They put on a great show, and the 75 minute set felt like it flew by. I liked them so much I considered seeing their Brooklyn show last night, but alas, I had to go get beat up at MMA class.
Since I got the tickets, Pete got me a Shonen Knife workout towel- you can see them around their necks in the photo of him with the band:

Here’s the band singing “Banana Chips”

I also have a clip of them covering “Daydream Believer,” I’ll edit this post when it’s finished uploading.

Return to Rutt’s Hut for the Rippers!

Rutt’s Hut is a north Jersey institution. Hot dogs cooked in a deep fryer until the casing splits open, and they are deemed “rippers.” Onion rings fried to a greasy mess of deliciousness. And most importantly, their own language behind the counter. Want a Yoo-Hoo? You’ll get a marlvis. Want them fries to go? Two rippers, Frenchy one, traveling! One marlvis, cap!
That’s part of the charm that makes their crispy fried dogs and their unique yellow relish so memorable. Rutt’s Hut was one of the first entries in the Greasy Spoons catalog, and we’ve come a long way baby. So we returned, on the eve of a Judas Priest concert, to have some rippers, in hope that the band would play my favorite song, “The Ripper.” And by jinkies, it worked! For those not familiar with the Hut of Mr. Rutt, it was opened in 1928 by Royal, aka “Abe” Rutt and his wife Anna. My 89 year old great-uncle Jimmy remembers going there with his wife before they were married. And they still serve the hot dogs the same way.
They are an acquired taste, but once you acquire it, nothing else will do. The crispy skin of the fried hot dog, the juicy center, the no-frills soft bun cradling the dog slathered in yellow mustard and their one-of-a-kind yellow relish made from ingredients unknown, but sure to contain purest manna from heaven. I’m told it contains cabbage, carrots and onions from Wikipedia, but until I see a spectrometry test I’m not budging.
Their fries are always crisp and golden; the onion rings have changed through the years, always a bit dark and overcooked as seen here. But a huge improvement from how I remember them as a child- the batter peeling off, leaving you a soggy fried mess of onions and crispy batter pieces. They also serve chili, but for some reason I’ve never had a chili dog here. The relish stands on its own. They also serve chicken, shrimp, burgers, the ubiquitous Taylor Ham, beer, and more, but nothing to write home about. The bar in back is a classic Old Man Bar (as defined by Weird NJ) and serve dinner specials; you can get hot dogs back there too, if you want a cold one.
Personally the counter is where it’s at. I remember eating on the tiny low children’s counter when I was a wee one, and besides, you can’t hear the guys manning the fry belt out their patter if you’re in back. And the atmosphere brings you back to the past. Jersey is full of ’50s style diners chromed to the gills and neoned to the nines, but this is more the real deal. A food counter that once served beer by the quart, with an overlook giving a scenic view of Route 21 and the glorious Passaic, where bodies still wash up. The tributaries thrive with carp the size of rottweilers, with odd numbers of eyes. The trucks rumble along the highway below belching diesel fumes that give your marlvis a certain extra something. (Cancer- we call it flavor!)

And now for your viewing pleasure, I sing “The Ripper” by Judas Priest while eating a ripper…

Weezer at the Garden

Firecracker and I went to see Weezer last night at Madison Square Garden. I was a huge fan of their original Blue album, and while their subsequent releases have not been as great, they always manage to come up with a good song or three. Their latest, the Red Album, has a few good singles ranging from the ubiquitous “Pork and Beans” that’s on radios everywhere, the rockin’ “Troublemaker” and my persona favorite, the wacky rap-rock-ballad “The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived.”

They performed all of those last night, and a bevy of their classics and a few good covers. Just about the only song I pined for was the nerd anthem “In the Garage,” but overall it was quite a satisfying concert. Tokyo Police Club and Angels and Airwaves opened for them. We caught some of A&A who were pretty good; first time I’d heard them, they seemed like a more alt-rock Muse to me but I only heard one song. I wanted to see Tokyo Police Club, but I wasn’t up for 4 hours of concert last night. We’re both sick.

Weezer had a nice LED background lightshow going on, and opened with “My Name is Jonas,” one of my faves. From the first album, they also played “The Sweater Song,” “Say it Ain’t So,” “Only in Dreams,” and of course, “Buddy Holly” as an encore. Other faves like “Hash Pipe” and “El Scorcho” made the cut, too.

Playing in Devo suits

They had a promotion before the concert- if you could play an instrument, you could audition to play with the band on stage. For the encore, they brought out 30 people with various instruments, from banjos and a sitar, flutes, accordions, saxophones, trumpets and a cowbell. They all played along to two songs, unfortunately including “Beverly Hills.” It was fun, but thankfully they only did two songs.

The lucky winners

They covered “What’s the Story Morning Glory” by Oasis, and “Sliver” by Nirvana. I felt like one of the only people who recognized and liked when they broke into “Gramma take me home!” They covered it well, and I’ll never get to see the original band play it so I enjoyed it. Overall it was a good concert- they played well, and a good variety of old and new. The gimmick wasn’t great, but I’m sure it was a blast for the musicians. It was not quite as cool as when Crowded House brought a school choir on stage. It’s more fun to watch kids have a blast than bearded hipsters and frat boys.