April 20, 2010

Barton on Fire

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Cornellians can cross “see The Flaming Lips live” off their bucket list after Sunday night’s sold-out epicness in Barton Hall. The band is infamous for their psychedelic live show and even in our former airplane hangar they managed to deliver. Sensory overload was the defining feature of the night, as concertgoers raged in a sea of balloons, and confetti and confetti-filled balloons. Oh, and people-filled balloons. Yes, Wayne Coyne brought his hamster ball and opened the show by rolling over the heads of the crowd. I’d usually say a guy in a giant hamster wheel flattening a crowd of people is rather pessimistically symbolic, but last night all it got was cheers and a lot of people desperate to touch the renowned bubble. To be fair, it was awesome.

You know a concert is going to be ridiculous when the lead singer comes onstage before the set and tells everyone, “especially girls” (not sure how to take that), to be wary of all the strobe lights and lasers — “don’t pass out” in a nutshell. Semi-humbly, Coyne also told us that he wanted to have the second best show ever in Barton Hall (after the Grateful Dead, whom he did not even want to try and surpass) — after which he spent the entire night encouraging the fans to go more crazy, more fucking crazy.

In some ways, it is hard to judge the music played Sunday: With so much else going on at once (sensory overload, remember?), the music is almost the last thing you think about. A Flaming Lips concert, I can now say with complete and total confidence, is not just about hearing a really good psychedelic rock band, but about the whole experience, starting with the band members emerging from the pulsating vagina of a giant neon woman on a giant video screen. The Lips want to shock their audience, fly in the face of societal regulation — I mean, there were naked women bouncing around the video screen all night long. But the show was also palpably celebratory — just trying to have a crazy time, a moment to remember.

It’s difficult sometimes to reconcile the social commentary The Flaming Lips want to share with their audiences with their ultra-chaotic mode of presentation: There’s a tendency for the message to get lost in the crowd. You can’t fully appreciate The Flaming Lips experience if you go into it believing that celebration and seriousness are mutually exclusive. Coyne and his brethren are asking you to think about war, about politics, about peace, but they know you’re probably just there to have a ridiculous time listening to some good music. So more importantly, they’re asking you to remember to think about these things. Celebrate life, but don’t forget what’s serious too.

This idea came across in particular two-thirds of the way through the show when Coyne stopped and asked the audience to remember the destructive power of the world. It was a move Coyne said the band had done at every live show for some time, always hoping the war in Iraq would be over the next time they played, always in the hope that the world can find some way to live in peace. The Lips asked the audience to send up the peace sign with all the energy and enthusiasm they could while they played taps. In a cheesy kind of way, it was a powerful moment. The audience was totally silent for just those thirty seconds in the midst of all the hyperbolic ostentation, and every peace sign in the air felt like someone who really wanted a better world.

Okay, so forgetting for the moment (if that’s even possible) the video, the balloons, the confetti rain, the giant hands, the hamster ball, the lasers, the laser-mirror moment Coyne commanded (which was soooo cool by the way) and the biggest damn disco ball you have ever fucking seen, let’s think about the music. The show didn’t stop at general sensory overload; The Lips want to make sure your ears are reeling as well. The sheer weight of the layers of music is enough to overwhelm you. Somehow though it all blends together into a cohesive, powerful sound that makes live listeners just want to go nuts. The set was really quite well played — tight and definitely enthusiastic. If you closed your eyes and tried not to think about the balloons landing on your head, you could hear each individual part, up to and including the maracas. The sound was simultaneously gentle and powerful, raucous and unified.

Thankfully, not every song was a blasting rock anthem — a lot were gentler rock ballads. You wouldn’t, for instance, describe a song like “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” as a particularly up-and-at-’em kind of song, but it was definitely a crowd favorite (and a sing-along moment). Another people-pleaser was the screw-you-George-Bush, “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” which in this instance, Coyne told us was supposed to help us remember how awesome it is to have Obama now. Not for the conservative-hearted.

The show ended with two encores. The first — a song played in tandem with the opening band Stardeath and White Dwarfs (Wayne Coyne’s nephew’s band). Fittingly, they seem in many ways a younger, miniature, worse version of The Lips — at this point trying a little too hard to be weird, with a little more rock and a little less indie in them. The second encore was “Do You Realize,” which felt like an absolutely perfect way to end the show. It’s probably The Lips’ most powerful and well-known song, and is (what else is new?) both celebratory and serious, searching for beauty at the same time. And easy to sing along with. And impeccably played. Which just about sums up the night, I’d say. Oh yeah, and there was a literal confetti tsunami during the song.

Original Author: Julia Woodward