Monday, November 14, 2011

October 28, 2011: The Flaming Lips

Flaming Lips
North Charleston Performing Arts Center (Charleston, SC)
October 28, 2011

A fact I've learned about myself as I age is I'm not big into "cult" culture, and by that I mean any slice of pop that appeals to a fervent and specific demographic. I can enjoy cult entertainment. I suppose Monty Python's Life of Brian would be considered a cult film, and it's among my favorites. But it's the ancillary behaviors borne out of the principal works that repel me. For instance, aren't there call-and-response cues throughout Rocky Horror Picture Show? And arriving at a movie premiere in costume always seemed ridiculous to me. (Ed note: I did bring a rubber snake to Snakes on a Plane, but that was tongue-in-cheek.)

One can hardly categorize The Flaming Lips as a cult band, considering they're one of the more titanic indie rock acts on the planet. But there is at least a breed of Lips fans, the so-called "Freaks," who worship at the altar of Wayne Coyne. They take drugs and dress up and gush when Wayne lovingly calls them "motherfuckers"between songs.

There are also those who primarily respect the Lips as a seminal progressive indie-rock act (raises hand.) Soft Bulletin is one of the 90's best records, Yoshimi is a triumph as well; even Embryonic, the Lips' latest LP, was one of my favorites of 2009. I appreciate the band's image and theatrical approach, but it certainly doesn't affect my ability to enjoy their music one way or the other.

I've seen the Lips before, in memorable fashion. I stumbled across a free performance on the National Mall on Earth Day of 2009. Blustery and spitting rain, I lasted only a handful of songs before I retreated to warmer environs, but it was quite a treat. Granted, I would have rather heard standard performances of songs such as, "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1" and "Fight Test" instead of the sing-along versions we got. But maybe that approach was due to the festival-like situation. I looked forward to seeing a more standard Flaming Lips performance, if there is such a thing.

364 days after our last experience at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center, the lady and I filed into our second row seats, amidst a sea of colored wigs and costumes. Halloween was three nights away, but Freaks habitually dress up as it is, so the bananas and elves and slutty-whatevers filling the rows weren't exactly novel.* The opening act, Talkdemonic, was a two piece post-rock outfit from Portland. As a lyrics guy, post-rock escapes me for the most part, but they were serviceable tonesetters for the evening. I do have a lingering gripe, however: if you're going to be a two-piece band, I find it unfair to supplement with backtracks of other live instruments. Looping is one thing, but just pushing play on a pre-recorded banjo track? You're playing live. How about hiring a banjo player?

After Talkdemonic wrapped, the Lips' crew (which included the Lips themselves) undertook the daunting task of prepping the stage for the multimedia melee on tap. Wayne Coyne doesn't try to protect his mystique--in fact he outright dismisses it, instead relishing in the attention he was awarded for showing himself. He eventually took the mic and offered a cheerfully profane introduction before returning to facilitate the set-up. You have to admire that neither Wayne nor any of the Lips are above being hands on after all these years.

Wayne's intro.

The set opened with the band's four non-Coyne members (keyboardist/guitarist/genius Steve Drozd, drummer Kliph Scurlock, bassist Michael Ivins, and young guitarslinger Derek Brown) emerging from a hidden door in the center the massive, semicircular screen. In true Lips fashion, a spread-eagle naked chick was occupying said screen. So, yes, she gave birth the band members. Meanwhile, Wayne was in his famous hamster ball, and set out on a bee-line to the back row of the sprawling orchestra pit.


The band was flanked by gaggles of slutty Dorothys whose enthusiasm ranged from "upper-fueled mainstage stripper" to "reluctant extra in high school production of The Crucible." The ladies were occasionally joined by enormous inflatable mascots, or a tin man, or a roadie with a fog gun. While I recognize the band's motive for having the girls onstage (bolstering the dance party environment, I guess?) it still seems lowbrow. And the fact that a few of the girls appeared uncomfortable or disinterested didn't exactly convey the level of energy that was intended.

A phalanx of mildly interested Dorothys, which is a sentence I'd never thought I'd write.

But that aside, you can't say the band doesn't know how to entertain. Props and confetti guns and balloons and giant foam hands and lasers--it was all pretty stimulating. Wayne Coyne is an engaging performer, and there's no mistaking his genuine goal for the Flaming Lips experience to be a collective, unyielding celebration. Unfortunately, his momentum was derailed when he referred to our town as Charlotte. He laughed as he accepted a torrent of mock boos, and tried to backpedal with some rambling theory about the immaterial nature of location and so forth that nobody really bought. It didn't have any lasting effect on the show, but it was a little irritating. Guitarist/keyboardist Steve Drozd kept things tight. It's easy to recognize that he's the band's purest musician, his role not unlike Jay Bennett's was in Wilco. Drozd deftly handled keyboard duties when he wasn't manipulating his Frankensteinian guitar with all sorts of gizmos built in. His voice--usually a smooth and stable falsetto--is also a key component to the band's onslaught, ably complementing Wayne's gravelly wail. Together with the power-drumming of Scurlock and the quiet finesse of longtime bassist Michael Ivins, the band does a fine job of recreating the controlled unravel of their studio sound.

Unfortunately, the setlist was defined more by what they didn't play than what they did. Sure, it was a treat to hear "She Don't Use Jelly" and the massive show-closer "Do You Realize??" But no "Yoshimi"? No "Fight Test"? No "Race for the Prize"? Not even the massive "Watching the Planets" from Embryonic? Some disappointing omissions, but this is not to say there weren't some tasty selections. Hearing a soaring version of Pink Floyd's "Brain Damage" and "Eclipse" was something special, as was "What Is the Light". The Embryonic cut "See the Leaves" saw Coyne smashing a mounted cymbal throughout, an activity that was mirrored on the screen by a towering nude chick (ostensibly the same one who squeezed the band out earlier.) Excited as I was at Wayne's introduction of "Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell" (one of my favorite Lips tracks), the version we got was abbreviated and understated, and it left me a bit nonplussed. All in all, it was a 15-song set.

I can't deny that I had a heap of fun and walked out of the venue sporting a silly grin. But a part of me was disappointed that the music was secondary to the fanfare, which was to be expected. But does there exist a disconnect in a live environment when the show is catered to the Freaks as opposed to the fans, both of whom showed up in equal measure? Wayne doesn't seem to care. To his credit, he's got a vision and he pulls out whatever stops necessary to see it through. Even a snobby music-first dude like me was inspired to get loose and bop balloons and scream Pink Floyd at the top of my lungs. Ultimately, it won't go down as one of my favorite concerts (especially in the shadow of the previous evening's TV On the Radio show.) But it was an indelible experience, impossible to forget. So to Wayne Coyne, all I can say is, "Mission accomplished, motherfucker."

*The night's highlight took place offstage, when an overzealous Freak dressed as an elf was pulled from his spot by an event staffer. The staffer was either a retired drill sergeant or 1980s WWF superstar, but whatever the case, it was evident he hated everything Wayne Coyne stood for. So when he spied this goofy nerd getting a bit out of control, the staffer cornered the guy and unleashed a public display of hellacious upbraiding that nearly brought the elf to tears as he begged for mercy. The staffer actually booted him from the show, but the elf somehow pled his way back in. So entertaining was it, that I'm now wondering if it was a part of the show. Talk about performance art!

Setlist and photos:

The Fear 
Sweet Leaf  (Black Sabbath cover)
Worm Mountain 
She Don't Use Jelly 
The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song 
Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell 
See the Leaves 
Laser Hands 
Pompeii Am Götterdämmerung 
What is the Light? 
The Observer 

Brain Damage (Pink Floyd cover)
Eclipse (Pink Floyd cover)

Do You Realize?? 

Other North Charleston Performing Arts Center Reviews:
Band of Horses w/Jenny and Johnny

Thursday, November 3, 2011

October 27, 2011: TV On the Radio

TV On the Radio
Music Farm (Charleston, SC)
October 27, 2011

It was Wednesday, and I was sitting at a bar with a buddy of mine going over some specifics for an upcoming camping trip. Eventually the conversation drifted into other things, namely music and concerts. I told him I had Flaming Lips tickets for two nights later. He casually mentioned that TV on the Radio was playing the next night (Thursday) and he was deliberating whether or not he should go. Not only did I not know about this, but I openly questioned him. After all, I'd be firmly aware if a can't-miss act like TV On the Radio was coming to town. Right?

Actually, he was right. TVOTR was playing the Music Farm, a fact that had somehow eluded me until less than 24 hours before showtime. How this happened remains a mystery, but luckily girlfriend was able to nab some tickets. Next thing I knew, we were standing amidst a sea of American Apparel and black rims at the Music Farm, waiting for the band to take the stage. Attending was a no-brainer, but this is not to say it didn't seem a bit obligatory for a few reasons. The Lips show the next night, plus I was already staring at a cluttered weekend slate, an already busy Thursday evening, a World Series game to watch. But I'd no doubt kick myself for skipping a renowned live act, one whose recorded cannon I've followed since 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain. It many ways, TVOTR is responsible for my musical wingspreading, as Cookie Mountain was one of the first relatively challenging albums I came to appreciate, especially among those that have virtually no stylistic inroads to Americana.

All things considered, we timed things perfectly. Showing up at the venue just shy of 10 PM, we saw roadies scrambling around the stage and by our calculations they were with the headliner. I usually aim to catch openers, but it wasn't in the cards tonight. After picking up a t-shirt, we were able to find a spot facing stage left, roughly fifteen yards from the stage. It's actually become sort of a defacto spot. I know I stood there or near there for Dr. Dog, Modest Mouse, and Andrew Bird.

It's always a rush to first see a band in the flesh after following them for some years. No exceptions here. The band's big three manned the near stage: fro'ed and bearded singer and guitarist Kyp Malone, dynamic lead man Tunde Adebimpe, and understated mastermind Dave Sitek. But multi-instrumentalist Jaleel Bunton's presence is felt via the bass, keyboard, and whatever else he might toss into the mix. I can't find the touring drummer's name, but big props to his bruising work behind the skins.

The band manned their instruments and launched into "Halfway Home", the opening salvo from 2008's Dear Science. It's a rumbling establishing act on record, but in a live environment it's an absolute firestorm. Adebimpe stresses the song's defining "ba-ba-bam-bam-bam" vocal refrains to the max while Sitek and Malone's guitars chug and drone. We heard a handful of Science tracks, including "Dancing Choose", "Golden Age", "Red Dress", and "DLZ". I can't actually find a setlist so I'm doing my best to recall what was played. I know we heard "Second Song" and "Repetition" from the band's 2011 release Nine Types of Light. Indie mega-hit "Wolf Like Me" brought down the house, as did the band's first notable single, "Staring At the Sun".

But more resonant than any one song was the untempered onslaught the band poured out over the crowd like molten lava. The guys never lacked energy. Their songs emanated like tractor beams from the broad stage, all draped in a haze of rich blue, purple, or orange light. Tunde is a stellar frontman, his expressive vocals complemented by arm flails and facial contortions. Kyp Malone isn't quite as animated, but he exudes a palpable kind of energy through his voice and presence alone. Incidentally, I was caught off guard by how often Malone sang lead vocals. Dave Sitek, behind his chunky black specs, oscillated steadily while manhandling his six-string, squeezing out fiery chords and leads as the band surged on. Some shows are meant for measured enjoyment, inviting each attendee to find his or her own groove and to calmly enjoy the performance within reason. This was not one of those shows. There was a roiling moshpit from the word go. It also marks the first time I've seen a crowdsurfer and stagediver make an appearance at the Farm. There was also an audience-wide rash of hat throwing that held steady throughout most of the show. It was odd, but somehow appropriate.

Mercifully (and I only say this because of how exhausted I was and my full slate in the upcoming days) the show let out by 11:30. But, of course, the best World Series game in years just had to be taking place at that time, so it was over to the bar to watch the final innings. I believe it was past one by the time my head finally hit a pillow. Indeed, it was a long, long night, but there wasn't a lingering shred of regret resulting from it. Quite the contrary, considering the show wasn't even a blip on my radar two days prior. Indeed, lost sleep can be found later, unlike lasting and explosive experiences like this.

Again, no setlist to be found, but some crappy iPhone photography for you:

Other Music Farm Reviews:
Dr. Dog
The Hold Steady
Modest Mouse
Andrew Bird

More musical lookalikes...

Time for another edition of musical lookalikes. And this isn't apropos of nothing, either. I've got a review upcoming of my recent TV on the Radio experience. It's been a long-harbored observation of mine that two gentlemen--each of whom I could only refer to as "the guy from (x)"--were a lock for this feature. And finally I have my excuse.

Folks, I give you character actor Eddie Steeples--most notably from My Name Is Earl--and TVOTR jack-of-many-trades Jaleel Bunton.

"Oh, so they look alike because they're both black guys with dread-fros? Do you only notice vague superficialities, you asshat?" Look, this feature is not based on anything more than loose criteria consisting of such vague characterizations. It's obvious that the two share a silhouette at first glance, and comparing them isn't some biological commentary on race or culture.

But yes.