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

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

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

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

The Flaming Lips at First Avenue, 7/15/14
Photo by Anna Gulbrandsen

The Lips showed more of their prowess as they played songs from The Soft Bulletin, producing a few wow moments on the strength of music alone. "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" conveys in its paragraph of lyrics more about life more than some artists' whole albums. "But life without death is just impossible / Oh, to realize something is ending within us," is a pretty solid statement of the human condition. And if a guitar solo by itself could convey a sense of mortality, the one in this song did -- emotionally complex, if not technically so.

Some of their newer work had less to offer musically. Following the hamster ball foray, the Lips played something from one of their most recent albums, The Terror, "Look...The Sun is Rising." Every light on stage flashed to red, and then blue, in unison, making the entire room seem to vibrate and producing an eerie haze effect when the after-images started to mix together (or maybe it was just retinal damage). This visual display was the most interesting sensory element of that part of the show. The song itself was not much besides loud and throbbing, disturbing in a boring way. It was the concert equivalent of a summer blockbuster like the newest Godzilla: it was ultimately a cool experience to see it on the big screen (so to speak) but I recognize that there wasn't much to it and it's not something I would ever listen to again at home. While this was going on, Coyne cradled a baby doll, for some reason.

This was by far the most striking example of stye trumping substance in the set, and there were others, like "The Golden Path," which sounded almost lazy, and "Vein of Stars." For the most part, the band played strong and simple rock and roll, hitting their spots and doing their songs justice. And the kept the crowd engaged, almost to a fault. Coyne would raise his hands and say "come on" before, during, and after most tracks, imploring every ounce of love from the audience. It got to the point where it almost seemed insecure, but was more than redeemed by his appreciation. "We just sing our songs," he said near the end of the set. "You guys do all the hard stuff." I can't say I know exactly what that means. I do know that it sounds like the sentiment of someone who truly appreciates what it means to be able to make a career out of performance, and who, for better or worse, has the performance part of rock 'n' roll down to a bright and glittery science.

The Flaming Lips at First Avenue, 7/15/14
Photo by Anna Gulbrandsen

After leaving the stage to a blinking LOVE in golden lettering six feet high, the Lips returned for their expected encore, "Do You Realize??" and "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." They were strong performances, with the lights and confetti one would expect. For a brief moment, as he led the crowd in their biggest hit, Coyne made it seem almost personal. And despite the occasional stumble, and the reality that the Lips have done this same thing hundreds of times before, it was clear to most of the audience in that moment that this band from Oklahoma has been around for 30 years for a reason.

Setlist: The Abandoned Hospital Ship She Don't Use Jelly Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots In the Morning of the Magicians The Golden Path Feeling Yourself Disintegrate Race for the Prize Vein of Stars Look...The Sun is Rising Try to Explain A Spoonful Weighs a Ton

Encore Do You Realize?? Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Critic's notebook:

Personal bias: Full disclosure: I know little about the Flaming Lips beyond what your typical alternative rock fan would pick up by osmosis. I am familiar with their sound, but haven't charted their rise and fall over the course of their career. So I feel somewhat under-qualified stepping into the conversation posed by Thompson. However, I've done my best.

The crowd: A pretty broad mix, with a lot of folks in out-of-town baseball jerseys who I assumed stopped in after the All Star Game. Cool dads were vastly overrepresented.

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