The Flaming Lips
The word “hip” is defined as “being aware or informed about current goings on.” In the world of popular music, the “hip” tag is generally applied to an artist or group of artists who, in shunning current trends and conventional wisdom, become fashionable in their own right. To me, hip can be defined by what I saw and heard at the Detroit Opera House on October 21st. Hip is the venue itself, a lingering presence in the Detroit slums that comes alive every now and then to brighten up the wreckage of inner Motown. Hip were the many folks—big ones, small ones, little ones, tall ones—dressed to the nines and politely abiding the overcrowded outer concourse. But hippest of all, naturally, was what took place onstage.
When Beck announced he had hired the Flaming Lips to be the backup band/opening act for his latest tour, it seemed like the coolest marketing ploy of all time. The buzz was that Beck’s latest record, the brilliantly somber Sea Change, was something of a snoozer—hiring a psychotic carnival like the Flaming Lips to back him up would not only liven up the gigs, but open up ticket sales to an entirely different audience. Gradually, though, a new perspective began to emerge. Maybe this was a chance for Beck’s longtime fans to hear his songs reinterpreted through the hands and feet of an incredibly gifted and strange group of musicians. And maybe this was also a chance for these freaks from Oklahoma City to prove they could crossover if they wanted to, that they were as eclectic and flexible as any band working in popular music. The performances by Beck and the Flaming Lips on this night proved this second set of hunches right.
It’s hard to do what the Flaming Lips do in a half-hour set, but on this night they really gave it a whack. Picture fifteen to twenty handpicked fans in giant furry animal suits adorning the band on either side of the stage. Picture two of the Lips dressed in a similar fashion—one, a giant zebra, the other a fuzzy brown bear. Picture smiling head Lip Wayne Coyne in a Wayne-Newton-white leisure suit, eking out vocals in his familiar cracking falsetto while people in giant animal suits dance, sing, and even act out the lyrics onstage. Sampling mainly from their two most recent LPs, this year’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and 1999’s stunning The Soft Bulletin, the Lips brought beauty, madness, and moments of sheer contradiction to the stage. While songs like “Do You Realize” and “Waiting For Superman” that are supposed to be profound, even morbid at times, sometimes got lost in the massive spectacle, others benefited from the colorfully dazzling lights, raining confetti showers and giant bouncing balloons. The Lips ended their brief set with “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton”, a number that found Steven Drozd (aforementioned fuzzy brown bear) pulling an impressive double duty, blessing the verse with a gentle, lilting piano melody before rushing over to the drum kit just in time for the big Bonham beats that freak out the song’s choruses. Coyne, joyfully pumping his fists to the sky in a move that would be oft-repeated this night, seemed truly happy to be there, acknowledging the crowd gracefully and honestly—leaving them wanting more, yet promising to be back shortly.
Beck came out shortly after, thrift-store suited and solo. He has been opening the shows on this tour acoustically, playing a few older numbers and taking a few requests as a way of making himself at least seem more accessible. From the opening bars of Mutations’ “Cold Brains”, to the boot-stomping juice harp boogie of “One Foot In The Grave”, Mr. Hansen had the crowd in his shirt pocket, hanging on his every word and chuckling at every joke.
During “The Golden Age”, Sea Change‘s Neil Young-ish opener, the curtain finally came up and there were the Flaming Lips, Jerry Lewis’s LSD trip of a rock band fronting as Beck’s musicians for hire. The question of whether or not they would successfully acclimate themselves to Beck’s more stringent, folk-based song structures was quickly put to rest. The Lips eased themselves right into the run of things, providing “Tropicalia” with its slinky Gilberto-y bossanova, and rocking up “Lord Only Knows” with heavy percussion and chop-worthy guitar licks. Beck seemed quietly determined to thwart his latest wave of critics, digging deep into his songbook and refusing to shy away from his bread and butter hits the way other artists might. “Loser”, for all its faults, is still a good jam—a stream of consciousness mishmash of slide blues, hip-hop and So-Cal twang that doesn’t seem contrived or forced, even 10 years after the fact. “Where It’s At” was even more delicious, as Drozd made like Jimmy Smith on the Hammond organ, giving the song’s familiar keyboard riff more swing and bite.
Despite the up-tempo successes of Beck’s earlier work, the most revealing moments of this show were courtesy of the new songs. “Lost Cause” was an electric piano slow burn, Beck’s defeated lyric seeming to gain strength in more densely layered surroundings. “Round the Bend” became an ode to the insurmountable artistic vision of Wayne Coyne, who picked that particular number to spend standing on his chair while spinning a flashlight above his head lasso-style. So you had Beck singing, “People pushing harder/ up against themselves/ make their daggers sharper/ than their faces tell” while Wayne Coyne, human lighthouse, provided just the right hint of visual goofiness. The result was high art minus the stale, pretentious air that typically worms its way into gigs like this.
After a set-closing rendition of “Devil’s Haircut” that featured Beck doing drop splits and robo-stepping in a jumpsuit fitted with glow-in-the-dark spaghetti strands (no joke), the dudes delivered a righteous encore, performing the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” as it was meant to sound—stark and spooky, sweet and pretty. It may have been the only performance of the evening that remained true to its original recording, free of wild reinterpretation and blatant contradiction. It cannot be denied, however, that for Beck, the evening was an over-the-top success—a well conceived and tightly performed moment of hip-pop history in the making.