Picture this: You’re looking at the front of a stage. Above you a man in a suit made entirely of muscles walks on in a shroud of fog. From far away his eyes seem to take up half of his face and his straggly salt and pepper hair spurts off in every direction imaginable. He’s smiling and making gestures with his arms. Following the man is a twelve-foot bee, an anthropomorphized mushroom, and a rainbow. Following the twelve-foot bee, the anthropomorphized mushroom, and the rainbow are some people with instruments. They politely say hello, thank you for coming, and start to make music.
What you’re seeing is not a drug induced hallucination (though it kind of feels that way) or the imminent invasion of benevolent space creatures (though it kind of feels that way). What you’re seeing is the beginning of a Flaming Lips concert.
Because I am notoriously late to the party, the first time I saw The Flaming Lips was headlining last years Riot Fest (coverage found here). At that time my only point of reference for the band was a dude-bro I had met at Frosh week years earlier. That guy loved The Flaming Lip. He constantly had their tunes blaring from his dorm room and talked about their shows like a religious experience. The same guy also used the word Namaste in casual conversation and had white-man dread locks. As such I instantly dismissed The Flaming Lips as hippie nonsense alongside other ridiculous things like patchouli oil and environmentalism.
Nevertheless I was there to cover the show. Thousands had come out to see the band and I figured that I’d watch their set for a half an hour before bailing to write a scathing and sardonic review accompanied by blurry photos from far away.
Instead the Flaming Lips opened the show by raining confetti onto the crowd and for the next hour or I bore witness to a truly amazing live act. The band used puppets, and projections, and LED lights to bring you into their world. And the Flaming Lips world doesn’t really feel like our world. It feels like something much, much, bigger. The pageantry is part of it, sure, and I wouldn’t discredit the pot smoke mixing with the fog machine, but the duration of their set front man Wayne Coyne and his backers created a dream like atmosphere where nothing really made sense and anything could happen. It was like a manufactured sort of transcendence. Not an easy thing to pull off. The experience was mesmerizing. I wrote a nice review. (here)
Last Sunday The Flaming Lips played a free show at Toronto’s city hall as a part of the festivities for the PAN AM games. For the week leading up to the show I hyped the concert to anyone who would listen and talked about the band as though I had something personally invested the performance. There are plenty of bands that I love that I couldn’t recommend to other people, in the case of those artists that’s probably part of their appeal, but I feel like a Flaming Lips’ gig is something everyone could experience and enjoy. It’s an acceptable level of weirdness and a nice gate way to some of the art-rock and theatre shit that is inherently under appreciated in our broader society. My biggest selling point was that during the performance the lead singer walks on top of the crowd in a giant hamster ball. People were really excited about the giant hamster ball.
A few friends did end up making it out to the show and talking to them afterwards they seemed just as enamored as I was. For my own part the thrill of the spectacle hadn’t worn off the second time around. As I watched the band perform from the side of the stage Coyne radiated positivity, defying the rumors of his offstage persona. Dressed like a homeless version of aqua man, complete with various rubber ducks sewn onto his shirt, the singer beamed from the stage, and toward the end of the set led thousands of people in a repeated chant on LOVE/LOVE/LOVE. It was some weird stuff but it felt warm and I’m glad that people can make stuff that feels that weird and that warm on the big a level.
Graham is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on twitter @presgang