If you were at the Flaming Lips concert at the Charlottesville Pavilion in 2006, Thursday night’s show might have felt like a time warp. Like in ’06, Wayne Coyne, Oklahoma City’s High Priest of Weird, came on stage wrapped in a mess of plastic that slowly inflated to a translucent sphere—really, a hamster ball for rock stars—in which he crawled over the audience. Cannons blasted confetti. There were huge balloons bursting, some filled with even more confetti.
Frontman Wayne Coyne had all sorts of tricks up his sleeve at Thursday’s Flaming Lips show. It’s just that he hasn’t changed his coat since at least 2006.
It might be time for the Flaming Lips to start working on a new shtick, if only this one weren’t so good. Since forming in 1983, the band’s concerts have slowly morphed into great, big, messy parties—as Coyne said, “A very nice kind of riot, where everybody is kind and nobody gets hurt afterward.”
Except, perhaps, for one guitarist’s feelings. That became apparent when Stephen Drozd, fighting the chaos to play a double-neck guitar with one of its necks removed, said, “Wayne, I think there’s officially too many balloons up here, man.” When the haze settled on Thursday, most of it by the third song, the ecstatic experience of being at a Flaming Lips concert settled comfortably into the feeling of being at a good rock ‘n’ roll show—albeit a pretty odd one. Clear highlights from Thursdays show were selections from last year’s Embryonic, a dark, almost incantatory set of tunes about a mysterious “she” that rely on the band’s strengths: namely, Drozd, bassist Michael Ivins and drummer Kliph Spurlock, still one of the most distinctive rhythm sections working today.
New songs “Convinced of the Hex” and “Powerless” are long, raunchy slogs that seemed to alienate, even bore, fans that had come only to see hits like the “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” and “Do You Realize.” And reasonably so. But as things go at Flaming Lips concerts, they got theirs, too, and then some. Coyne’s eagerness to please took a turn for the gagworthy when Coyne started pandering to potheads, noting that he sold drugs when he was 16 years old to augment his pay at Long John Silver’s. Pot, he noted, “Smells nice.”
As its members push 50, the Lips aren’t the punk purists and road warriors they once were. Near their hulking tour buses, idling behind the pavilion, was what looked like a team of 15 Life Aquatic-style interns, all dressed in orange. But everything on stage looked to have been handmade with care, and thoughtfully arranged—even if that only meant knowing when to spray the fog machine that had been retrofitted with a handle, or when to activate the laser-beam stigmata from the huge set of dummy hands. The lighting rig was cobbled together from junk store parts and covered in orange tape. The band set up its own instruments. While that’s hardly heroic, for many young fans the band is the best example of what you can do if you care enough to do it yourself.