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Flaming Lips concert extravaganza lives up to stellar reputation in Boston

By Maxwell Price

Section: Arts

September 4, 2009

In spite of its ostentatiously bizarre antics, the Flaming Lips is a band that aims to please.

For those of you uninitiated in the cult of the Flaming Lips, the band was started, humbly enough, in 1983 by the Coyne brothers and their friends in Norman, Oklahoma. As evidenced by a wonderful early compilation title, “Finally the Punk Rockers are Taking Acid,” the band melds catchy, distorted freak-outs with lush psychedelic arrangements. Wayne Coyne, the unlikely lead singer, always sounds approximately half an octave above his natural range.

In 1990 the band got signed to Warner Brothers, thus becoming an indie Cinderella story. If you’re familiar with their 1992 breakout hit “She Don’t Use Jelly,” you probably wondered how the hell the dudes got famous. On Sunday night I found out.

Not all great bands are great live bands and vice versa. I would not characterize the Flaming Lips as a great alternative rock band in the realm of Radiohead or Pavement. But I’d be hard pressed to think of a time when I had as much fun at a concert as I did seeing them at the Bank of America Pavilion on Sunday.

I’d heard rumors about their supposedly legendary shows, but what sounded like a series of goofy gimmicks coming from friends’ accounts proved a mind-blowing spectacle. The show began when an enormous semicircular arch background turned in a projection screen featuring a psychedelic, pulsating naked woman. (The band’s fascination with nude chicks is perhaps its greatest commonality with the traditional rock and roll genre.) Each member burst through the screen and the woman it portrayed in a sort of ceremonial birthing.

The first song, “Race for the Prize,” perfectly set the stage. Every time they played the main riff, confetti, smoke, and balloons were shot out of two cannons on either side of the stage. The tune is, like much of the Lips’ recent catalog, an achingly melodious anthem layered with symphonic orchestrations. The band established a cathartic, celebratory mood so beautifully that it was hardly conceivable that in its early years, starting a noisy ruckus was its primary modus operandi.

Wayne Coyne’s emergence from a plastic bubble that rolls over the audience was one of his signature flourishes, as was the legion of costumed fans that danced on the sides of the stage. There was not necessarily a theme to any of the band’s stage production choices, but they were all meant to facilitate the transcendence of social boundaries by, to put it simply, acting freaky.

It’s easy to divide the Lips’ musical output chronologically into two separate eras, the earlier marked by sweetly dissonant thrashing and the latter by effervescent waves of overdubbed sound. Yet the inclusion of early tunes like “Bad Days” and “They Don’t Use Jelly” in a set dominated by more popular later tunes made the case for a coherent sensibility that remained constant through different sonic approaches.

“Bad Days,” which slyly depicts daydreamers who imagine their way out of dismal situations was a highlight, featuring a fuzzy bass line and splashy cymbals that added a little grit in a set that sometimes threatened to float off into euphoric la la land.

Some songs that seemed like bloated epic sprawls on the album like “Pompeii Am Götterdämmerung” somehow worked in context of the live performance, if only because they were salvaged by Wayne Coyne’s proficiency with the gong.

You know a live show succeeds when you become absorbed into another world and leave your inhibitions behind. Hearing a thousand people singing in unison, “Yoshimi, they don’t believe me/But you wouldn’t let those robots eat me,” seemed perfectly normal to me as I chimed in.

Let’s just say the dudes succeeded.

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