LIVE REVIEW: The Flaming Lips, Red Rocks, Sunday, August 23, 2009
Having seen the Flaming Lips some 12 times over the past 15 years, the question I kept pondering before their next appearance was “How are they ever going to be able to top the last one?”
Since their appearances on the side stage in 1994’s Lollapalooza tour – the last time they put on any type of “regular” show – the Oklahoma natives seem to out-do themselves on every tour. August 23rd’s Red Rocks show was no exception.
The short answer? Simple: To start the show, enter the stage through a giant vagina! And that, in a brilliant, provocative and surprisingly family-friendly fashion, is exactly what they did.
After their giant, nude video muse performed an erotic dance on the jumbotron screen behind the stage, she laid on her back, legs spread and sporting a psychedelic, pulsing orb in place of her genitalia. The throbbing glow kept advancing until it took over the entire screen, while stage hands erected a ramp up to the chasm that opened to allow band members Steven Drozd, Michael Ivins and Kliph Spurlock through to the stage. At the same time, frontman Wayne Coyne was climbing into his (now signature) giant balloon beneath the ramp, which was then fully inflated and rolled out onto members in the front of the crowd.
From that moment, to Coyne’s final explosion of a giant, confetti-filled balloon filled with an industrial blower, the Lips proved yet again that they do wield the power to lift an entire audience and deliver them to another plane.
Shortly after the vaginal delivery, a soft, surrealistic avalanche of giant balloons was sent tumbling over the heads of the less-than-capacity audience, enticing screams of glee from those lucky enough to be hit by them. Repeated cannon blasts full of confetti and streamers exploded over the amphitheater, leaving the metalwork over the stage looking like a field of tall grass blowing in the wind (albeit suspended upside-down).
At one point, as they played the slow and sweet “Vein of Stars,” the video behind them encouraged the audience to “Ready your lasers” (small laser pointers the band distributed earlier in the show), and then after a 5-second countdown to “SHOOT WAYNE!” The effect, as Coyne repelled thousands of beams with a giant mirror in front of his head, was a truly awesome audience-generated light show. It lasted no more than a few minutes, but you could both feel and hear the excitement level of the audience rising by the second, all of us ecstatic to become a living, breathing part of the show.
As they played “Silver Trembling Hands” and “Convinced of the Hex,” two songs from their upcoming album “Embryonic,” the excitement waned somewhat from a simple lack of familiarity. But the audience was brought back to life again, and with even more fervor, during a so-quiet-it-was-almost-sacred version of “Fight Test,” and then a rousing version of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1,” sung so strongly by the audience that it required almost no singing on Coyne’s part.
Coyne encouraged the audience to raise their arms en masse, forming the “peace” symbol with their fingers, and to “ . . . push that peace out of you as hard as you can! Squeeze it out into the world . . . .”
Another highlight of the evening came with “Enthusiasm for Life Defeats Existential Fear,” a song from their 2005 band documentary “The Fearless Freaks,” as Coyne poignantly, almost softly, focused the audience on what this tour’s politics: to use Flaming Lips infectious positive vibe to inspire us towards unity and change for the better – our potential under the Obama administration. Previous tours featured Coyne proselytizing in and around songs like “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” (one aimed directly at out last president) with uncharacteristic anger, even coming across as disenfranchised. In stark contrast, this show exploded with an obvious and feral positivity – back on track for the band, and for the country. And the wildly engaged multi-generational audience truly ate it up. At one song intro, Coyne encouraged the audience to raise their arms en masse, forming the “peace” symbol with their fingers, and to “ . . . push that peace out of you as hard as you can! Squeeze it out into the world . . . .” We all thrust our hands up in peace signs, pushing to send the universe a message of hope, wrapped in beauty and strong, optimistic energy. It actually felt good, even real.
I brought my entire family to this one, since their music has been continuously and ubiquitously present in our lives since before any of the children were even born (I actually surprised myself when we realized that the three youngest, aged 6 to 13, had never seen a Flaming Lips show before, and the 21-year-old only a mere two or three). It also happened to be the first live show ever for the youngest of them (and I take full credit for bringing him to such a singular, brilliant experience to usher him onto his live-music journey). Their reactions to the antics were positively barometric – you could literally see the excitement building in their eyes, behind their glee-stricken grins, screams and hoots. They watched this group of heroes they’d heard on only record and seen only on YouTube acting out such an incredible spectacle, live and in front of them with wonder I’ve rarely recognized: enraptured, screaming, jumping, laughing and exploding with each blast of confetti. And their attitude and energy was perfectly mirrored in the crowd all around them.
As the Lips performed “She Don’t Use Jelly,” the audience erupted in an even more intense elation, singing along with every word. Coyne had introduced the song as their last of the night, but nobody bought that. They actually closed the show with their mega-hit “Do You Realize,” in a simultaneously somber and uplifting performance that left the air energized, and the entire audience charged and satisfied.
Though some of the play and gimmicks onstage have been done many times before, the performance remained powerful enough to give the natural, primal beauty and grandeur of the amphitheater and the surrounding hills and spectacular views a solid run for their money. It wasn’t that much different than other shows The Lips have logged at Red Rocks, or some other Denver venues, and yet this one still felt newer, more cathartic and even more explosive than the all of them.
So now I have to ask all over again: How are they ever going to top this one next time?