The Flaming Lips at First Avenue, 7/15/14

Categories: Last Night

Photo by Anna Gulbrandsen
The Flaming Lips
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The crowd roared at the sight of a clear sheet of plastic, as the band played a simple rhythm to fill the time. This was, of course, the Zorb ball -- the clear human hamster wheel that Wayne Coyne has used in shows for years to walk over audiences like Jesus on the sea of Galilee. After the ball fully inflated, the lights focused on it, and it glowed with pale moonlight. It's easy to see why this aspect of the Flaming Lips stage show has become so well known -- it's a striking and memorable scene. "Vein of Stars," the song performed mostly from the middle of the floor, was secondary. The music, even more minimal than on record, didn't provide much to latch onto, and the lyrics almost whisked away.

The day of the concert, City Pages published an essay by Erik Thompson, "Why I gave up on the Flaming Lips," that questioned the value of the latter half of the Lips' career. He claimed that the spectacles of their live shows have become soulless over time, and that their recent albums have been tepid rehashes of old work (both their own and Pink Floyd's). "Wayne Coyne has become a cartoon character in an overlong movie that few are even watching anymore," Thompson wrote. Strong words, and an interesting set-up.

See also:
Slideshow: The Flaming Lips wow at First Avenue

Photos by Anna Gulbrandsen

Last night's show didn't prove Thompson right -- it would be a stretch to call what we saw soulless -- but it's also possible to see what he's talking about. Though there was spectacle and flash, and plenty of real love coming from Coyne and the rest, there was also a sense of staleness in a few of the numbers. The enthusiasm of the crowd sometimes made up for a lack of performance from the Lips themselves. But the bottom line, if there needs to be one, is simple: the band put on a good show.

The stage was set up behind a tangle of light tubes hanging down like vines and in front of three huge light boards. The Flaming Lips' inscrutable frontman began the night in a muscle print body suit with a sparkling silver tasseled loin cloth and a bow tie. After a little trouble with the vocal microphones, the set began a few minutes late. Coyne recounted the last time he played in the mainroom -- 15 years ago, as many in the crowd remembered -- and said that Entry was one of the first places they ever got to play. Driving in for that gig, he said, they heard one of their songs played over the air on Radio K.

Early lo-fi days in mind, the show opened with "The Abandoned Hospital Ship" off 1995's Clouds Taste Metallic. After a deceptively simple beginning, with only a simple series of keyboard or guitar notes, the band launched into the light and noise portion of the show. It was absolutely beyond processing: an explosion of confetti (the first of many), smoke, strobes and color as the band hammered on in unison, led by the drums. In Coyne's words, goddamn!

Photo by Anna Gulbrandsen

Coyne donned a silver bird-winged cape for "She Don't Use Jelly." Backed by a costumed rainbow as well as a light-show one, the visuals were sunny and light, even as the sound was heavy and muddy. Coyne held back to let the audience sing the cornerstone Vaselines, magazines, and tangerines of the song's chorus. It was a taste of things to come, as throughout the night the packed house would become almost a member of the band.

This was most apparent in the next track, "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots." Coyne actually restarted the song because the audience hadn't given him enough oomph with its karate chop sound effects. When it finally did get going, the pink supernova backdrop and the guitars, distorted to the point of sounding like a video game, created a great fun vibe. The generally more relaxed sound continued with another track from Pink Robots, "In the Morning of the Magicians." Coyne's vulnerability, leading into a strong synth and bass groove that was one of the more complex sounding parts of the set, was a sublime combination.

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