The Flaming Lips have always remained a bit mysterious to me. Some people still call them a punk band based on their original sound, but most of their current audience became aware of them through more recent, less aggressive melodic pop songs like “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” and “Do You Realize??” In the early to mid ‘90s, the Lips spent a brief time surfing the pop charts with their left-field hit “She Dont Use Jelly.” But they mostly spend their time wading through experimental psychedelic musical pop art. They are a pillar of Midwestern rock, and every friend of yours in a band that wandered through the band’s home state of Oklahoma has a story about the iconic, idiosyncratic frontman Wayne Coyne. He’s been known for dropping in to do an impromptu guest spot for other bands’ albums just because he happened into the studio while they were recording. They are one of the few Midwestern bands that seems to embrace their flyover country roots, ready to prove that good art is made by talented and fearless individuals, not by a coastal location.
“The Fearless Freaks”, a documentary about The Flaming Lips that’s available on Netflix, includes grainy home footage of some of the band members in their younger days, ramping bikes off of “sweet jumps,” playing front yard football and other classic suburban activities before moving into behind the scenes footage of Coyne making “Christmas on Mars,” a bizarre, seemingly impossible film of his own called full of homemade props and sets of baffling complexity and oddity.
Midwestern as they are, The Flaming Lips still have a vaguely international air about them. So, here goes: the band is a midwestanese-punk-alternative-psychedelic-avante-garde-pop-art-space-rock outfit from our neighboring state. I’m a sucker for contradiction when coupled with good music, so I’m sold, and the two records I’m familiar with are near masterpieces of all those elements wrapped in a very listenable package. This is nearly the peak of what a rock band can possibly achieve in my book, so when I heard The Flaming Lips were playing a student show at Barnhill arena in Fayetteville, I knew I was going even though I skip most arena shows these days.
The show began with a winking vagina-eye video loop on a massive screen at the front of the stage. After a long wait, the band members surprised us by entering via birth canal in the middle of the video screen, walking through what revealed itself to be a video curtain. After Coyne entered, he fired a confetti gun over the crowd as confetti canons simultaneously fired, filling the rafters, and the band coalesced on the opening riff of “Sweet Leaf,” Black Sabbath’s classic ode to Mary Jane.
As you would expect, their show is heavy on visual effects. Some people will remember when Coyne and Co. came through Fayetteville back in the ‘90s on the boombox tour, asking participants to bring their own boombox which would be provided with a tape to be played or stopped according to conductor Coyne.
That impressive creativity is still present, but their home made props and visual toys are constantly evolving. Wayne still rolls around in the crowd in the plastic bubble. He still has the ultra-close-up camera displaying his nostrils on the large video screen above. He added oversized laser hands. It was all effective, the most thrilling moment being when the synchronized video screen began looping photos of wild animals gnashing their teeth over some wild keyboard and drum sounds while Coyne fired his laser hands off of a massive disco ball.
Not surprisingly, the student show consisted of a young crowd, and only slightly surprisingly, the not-so-young band caters their show to a young crowd with lots of looping, heavily stylized, filtered video of naked young women dancing and flailing. The stage wings were stuffed with uniformed squads of dancing rock ‘n’ roll girls. Although the young crowd was excited and generally on board to go wherever the Lips took them, the inevitable requests for “Yoshimi” were heard between less familiar, less melodic, less danceable, more aggressive songs. Coyne teased the crowd playing snippets of “Yoshimi.” He said “we love those songs, we just don’t always play them... Unless you really want to hear it.” It seemed to finally get the enthusiasm from the crowd that he was searching for, so he looked to other band members to make sure all were on board before playing an acoustic, drum-less, sing-along version of the song which, the crowd enjoyed immensely, even performing the karate sounds in the verses. It appeared to be off-the-cuff, as Coyne and the band walked each other slowly through the song, having apparently not practiced it. Coyne seemed to enjoy the moment with the crowd, and the keyboard player looked pleasantly surprised that they made it through without any flubs, although they must’ve played the song thousands of times by now.
The band and crowd all seemed in good spirits throughout the night. The only detractions were the vocals being a little indiscernible and the lack of familiar songs in the meat of the set, but the real Lips fans in attendance surely don’t share that opinion, and those who stuck around were treated to a closing version of “Do You Realize??” All in all, the band seems like they still “have it,” yet I found myself wishing I’d seen them 10 years ago. But you have to respect them for neither ignoring nor pandering to casual fans like me. They are a fantastic band that has deservingly made many “must-see” lists, but if you are considering attending any of their upcoming tour dates, I would recommend getting familiar with their newer material (or simple be in your ’20s), lest you find yourself with that familiar post-arena concert exhaustion. They promised to return and play a free show in Arkansas if Proposition 5, the medical marijuana act on the ballot this year, passes.