“Of course I wanted a damn hug. I just saw the Flaming Lips.”
Eugene, OR 06/02/2018
The Flaming Lips have long been one of my white whale live bands, i.e., a band that I love that still tours that I have never seen in concert. When I mentioned to a friend that I would finally get to see them live, he mused, “It might be too late.” The same thought had crossed my mind. The Lips’ schtick in the Miley Cyrus-era seems to be tilting towards “wild” and “edgy” bullshit rather than the inspired insanity of previous eras; what seemed like a one-off goof with a pop star has gone on uncomfortably long. It didn’t help that a couple days before the Eugene show, it was announced that the band wanted to release an album pressed with Cyrus’ urine. Even for a band known for outlandish ideas, this seemed desperate.
I worried too that I had moved beyond the ability to fully enjoy the Lips’ live experience. I’m a grown-ass adult with grown-ass adult problems and my patience for twee is thin. On record, the Lips deftly balance the whimsical with the existential. Their relentless enthusiasm for fresh sounds and Wayne Coyne’s lyrical concerns about life on this big-blue-rock-floating-in-space make for a captivating listening experience. The live show seemed like a giant party where the bigger themes get pushed to the side in favor of a “let’s get WILD” mentality, a place where people confuse “weird” with “obnoxious.” This would be like Halloween, New Year’s Eve and Las Vegas all rolled into one and would be my own personal hell.
Every single one of these concerns (and many others! I’m pretty anxious!) were running through my head as I stood at the front of the stage, and every single one of those concerns were washed away the second Wayne Coyne stepped onstage. The man absolutely radiates playfulness and joy. With his slight figure covered in a red suit and his shaggy hair adorned with a fan-made crown covered in pink robots, he enthusiastically addressed the crowd. He seemed genuinely excited that “the real Santa Claus” was standing at the front of the stage. After a preamble of “Also sprach Zarathustra” AKA the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme, the entire stage appeared to explode as the band transitioned to the breezy, euphoric melody of “Race for the Prize.” A shocking amount of confetti appeared from all directions; all the lights strewn about the stage flashed; a seemingly unending parade of gigantic balloons were ferried from the side of the stage out into the crowd; Coyne raised a 20 foot tall silver balloon of the words “Fuck Yeah Eugene” over his head. I was overwhelmed.
Over the course of nearly two hours, that feeling rarely abated. Coyne is an unabashed populist, a firm believer that weird doesn’t have to be alienating. The audience is integral to the performance and he wasted no time in getting out among the people. By the second song, Coyne was standing down in front of the stage hugging audience members while singing “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Pt.1,” all while a giant, inflatable pink robot loomed overhead. Standing two feet away from him, I was struck at how genuine and earnest he seemed. For Oczy Mlody track and tour namesake “There Should Be Unicorns”, the vibe was a trancy dance party while Coyne rode through the crowd atop a homemade unicorn. And, of course, the human hamster ball made its appearance during a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” creating a marvelous visual of a gigantic, glowing orb atop a sea of arms.
The setlist pulled entirely from the post-Soft Bulletin era, conveniently skipping over the dark and dour Embryonic and The Terror albums much to my chagrin. I obviously had a lot of songs I would have like to have seen live so it was a little frustrating to lose valuable space to songs like “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song.” Still, the band threw in some fun surprises like the Soft Bulletin-era B-side “The Captain” and the ramshackle nature of the live show tended to buoy the more uninteresting songs. The Lips even managed to add their own spin to the “The Star Spangled Banner.” While Steven Drozd wailed away on his voice-boxed guitar, Coyne donned a pair of gigantic, papier-mâché hands with multi-colored lasers shooting out of the palms. As the stage filled with fog and the lights dimmed, he playfully aimed them over the crowd before turning around and shooting them directly at the gigantic disco ball that hung over the band. Coyne and his giant hands were silhouetted by the ensuing blast of now randomly aimed lasers in one of the more striking visuals of the entire set. It was a perfect encapsulation of the Lips’ ability to create something entirely unique and unexpected from the most basic of elements. Their creativity and unwavering desire to seek out new perspectives on the mundane is their greatest asset.
After the rousing and requisite encore of “Do You Realize?”, the crowd was rapturous. Usually, I find that song to be a little too on-the-nose but in the context of the live show, surrounded by people of all ages, it was incredibly powerful. All around us, people were reaching out to touch their friends, hugging in pairs and groups; lovers were making out. As my friend and I made our way toward the exit, starry-eyed and smiling, he turned to me and said, “Do you want to hug?”
Of course I wanted a damn hug. I just saw the Flaming Lips.