Concert Review

The Flaming Lips Dazzle at McDowell Mountain Music Festival

Major labels get a lot of flack. Whether it's because they supposedly put out nothing but overly-commercialized crap, or because they're suing computer-using kids in a vain effort to salvage their busted business model, it's rare to hear anyone say anything nice about the Big Four. That's why Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne snagged my attention Saturday night when he made offhanded mention of his band's nearly two decades with Warner Brothers during his band's show at the McDowell Mountain Music Festival. Say what you want about the majors, but try to think of another band that's been allowed to take on as many insane, experimental and un-commercial projects as the Lips for anywhere near as long.

Anyone who saw the Lips' beautiful, joyous, and utterly unforgettable show to close down the two-day festival in north Scottsdale is likely to agree: Bugs Bunny is doing the world a favor by backing this neo-psychedelic outfit from Oklahoma City through a record that can't be listened to on any fewer than four CD players, and a galactic Christmas movie that took six years to make. 26 years in to their career, the Lips have elevated the theatrics of the rock show beyond anything that's been staged before -- including Zoo TV and The Wall.

As Coyne -- with a graying beard, curly mop of hair and in a white suit, he looks more like an art dealer than a rock star-- opened the show by rolling out in to the crowd's arms inside a man-sized hamster ball, you had to wonder what the hippies who'd been listening to acts like Railroad Earth and Indigenous jam through marathon sets all afternoon were thinking. When the massive screen surrounded by an arch of LED lights got burning, the balloons dropped and a dozen or so TelleTubby dancers got grooving, for the opener "Race for the Prize," off the band's critical-breakthrough, The Soft Bulletin, I'd like to think they dug it.

Musically, the show was above average but, even for those of us who are quite familiar with the band's catalog, a little lacking when it came to memorable songs. A verse of Prince's "Purple Rain" (the band wanted to record it for a Warner retrospective, but The Purple One declined, Coyne said) was fun. The band's fantastic version of Madonna's "Borderline" was probably the most compelling effort of the night while a raucous take on "Lightening Strikes the Postman," from Clouds Taste Metallic, was the only real (and very pleasant) surprise. The Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots singles got acoustic sing-a-long treatments that would probably have worked better if the entire crowd had been Lips fans, not a smattering of Lips fans and aging ex-hippies. "Do You Realize??," the official state rock song of Oklahoma (at least until lawmakers there learn more about the bands politics and/or opinions on drug use) was a nice choice for the encore, and sounded solid. Sadly, Coyne's voice, always soft and high, was a bit screechy throughout the night. No one's ever listened to this band for the vocals though, and at age 48, with a heavy tour schedule, Coyne can easily be forgiven for being a little off-key.

Showmanship-wise, though, everything was spot on. Confetti and ballons streamed from the stage, a light-up gong seemed to always be doing something different and microphone-mounted camera that captured Coyne's nose, eyes and forehead was a surprisingly effective backing video. Smoke and lights were only part of the equation, as the title track from Yoshimi charmingly featured the band's drummer in a home-made pink robot suit, which someone in the crowd handed to the band.

The band promised to get the suit back to the guys who made it, which struck me as an incredible act of humbleness, especially for a band that's been on a major label since there were two Germanys. Safe to say, there aren't many like them. But, really, there's no one like The Flaming Lips.

Critic's Notebook:

Last Night: The Flaming Lips at McDowell Mountain Music Festival.

Better Than: You might see a better concert, but you will not see a better stage show than this anywhere.

Personal Bias: When I was first interested in doing this whole music writing thing for my college paper, the editor asked me what I listened to. It was 2000, and I said "I really like the Flaming Lips and Wilco." I was hired.

Random Detail: The girl in the rhino-horned green TeleTubby outfit to stage left really drew my ire by removing her hood and hamming it up at the front of the pack on several occasions. Look, I'm sure it's hot in that suit, so move to the back and let some other people get some facetime while you're uncostumed. Either that or sweat it out. You're not there for your dancing ability, you're there because you're a TeleTubby, so wear the hood.

Further Listening: Zaireeka. After our little listening party this week I'm pretty firmly convinced it's the Lips at their best.

By the Way: I loved the little video intros pulled from the band's brief flirtation with mainstream success in the mid-90s. First we had Jon Stewart mispronouncing the name of their hit single "She Do[es]n't Use Jelly" then the 90210 gang rocking out to that song at The Peach Pit After Dark. Too bad they didn't incorporate Steve Sanders hilariously douchey comment after the performance: "I'm not really a fan of alternative music, but these guys rocked the house!"

One More Thing: Coyne apologized several times for the fact that the band hasn't been to Arizona in such a long time (five years?). He loves us, he says, don't worry.

Other people are saying: The Arizona Republic reviewed it here.

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Martin Cizmar
Contact: Martin Cizmar