TVD Live: The Flaming Lips at The Anthem, 11/16

Add to the list of necessary roadie skills that of leaf blower.

He’s the guy who scampers on stage at a Flaming Lips concert to inflate a series of transparent plastic bubbles surrounding lead singer Wayne Coyne—or similarly blow-up giant rainbows, or swaying pink robots, as required.

Decades ago, Coyne developed the idea of singer-in-plastic bubble at rock concerts as a method to roll over his blissed-out audience, improving and streamlining the hand-to-hand combat of crowd surfing. When Covid hit, they proved safe barriers; he devised a series of concerts in the band’s hometown of Oklahoma City where not only all the band members were enclosed in their own bubbles, but so were the audience members. Now, the band must have piles of leftover bubbles.

By the end of their fall tour Tuesday at the Anthem in Washington, DC, concert restrictions had eased enough to allow fans to move around without being confined to bubbles (vaccination proof and masks were still part of the protocol, though).

But Coyne sang almost entirely inside a series of bubbles, with new ones constantly subbing in when his got too foggy, too hot, or a little less inflated. At 60, he no longer rolls over the audience. But he did roll out a big bubble full of balloons to the crowd at the show’s end. And he had other distractions: shooting streamers, pointing a spotlight into the crowd, unleashing confetti at various times, and hoisting a site-specific set of letter balloons at the finale.

It was all part of a frenzied visual overload that perfectly matched the joy of the music. Before the show even began, he toyed with a mechanical bird that flew above the heads of the crowd to accompany the opening song “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion,” about a bird that hangs around during wintertime, defying the notion that “autumn’s a common’ and soon everything around us will die.”

You might say mortality has been a constant for the band, as they followed with the celebratory “Do You Realize,” whose second half of the question in one verse is “that everyone you know someday will die?” There’s hardly time to mourn, though as that terrific anthem came with a huge inflatable rainbow across the stage and a rain of confetti—despite being only the second song. Even with a two story inflatable robot appearing only four songs in during “Yoshimi,” the show didn’t even peak with those early moments, but stayed at that elevated level.

That’s largely because the Flaming Lips’ most recent American Head returns them to the heights of positive psychedelia of high-water marks like The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. With a heavy focus on drug experimentation, with a humane edge, the 2020 album dominated the spectacle, with songs that seemed both fresh and familiar at once.

By now, only Coyne remains from the original band that formed nearly 40 years ago; the only other longtime mainstay, Steven Drozd, kept busy on an array of instruments as well as providing that high, keening backing vocal that has become an identifying trait of the band. Other standouts in the sextet were the twin drummers of Matt Duckworth Kirksey and Nicholas Ley—who also matched in their longhair green wigs and headbands (which became glowing yellow locks under black light). With Derek Brown on a series of keyboards adding more texture, it’s a big, big kaleidoscopic sound that matched perfectly the constantly twirling all-night light show.

When they played their breakthrough hit single from 28 years ago, “She Don’t Use Jelly,” in the middle of the set, it served to remind how they could have remained an MTV one-shot band so common in that era had they not gone been determined to grow further.

To be sure the band, reveled in playing live again on tour, being alive and having the happy audience sharing it all. Still, Coyne insisted the audience scream more, repeating his plea at the end of nearly every song. It was unclear whether he couldn’t hear the crowd that well from inside the bubble or was making up for months of no live feedback. But it verged on weird, especially as the mania he requested would usually lead into a medium tempo song, and not a high energy raver.

Another odd thing was that the accompanying “live” video of Coyne and Drozd shown on the screens behind them amid the psychedelia on the overworked backing pixels wasn’t live at all, but taped from some previous show, with the performers in different shirts, doing mismatched gestures. But it was all pretty great.

Some extra guitar help stood out as Micah Nelson joined in to solo on “Will You Return / When You Come Down.” The son of Willie Nelson had been helping out the band live of late, but it came mostly by bringing his band to open the show. As such, his Particle Kid took every advantage of a Flaming Lips tour by being weird as they wanted, with capes and longer (but thinner) psychedelic jams. The graciousness of the headliners showed not only when Drozd came out to help play a Radiohead cover, but in giving them access to the full stage and video set up that made their set more notable than it might have been.

They didn’t get any bubbles though.

My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion
Do You Realize??
Assassins of Youth
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1
Flowers of Neptune 6
Assassination of the Sun
You Have to Be Joking (Autopsy of the Devil’s Brain)
She Don’t Use Jelly
Silver Trembling Hands
Will You Return / When You Come Down
Mother I’ve Taken LSD
Sunship Balloons
Dinosaurs on the Mountain
Feeling Yourself Disintegrate

Worm Mountain
All We Have is Now
Race for the Prize

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