When my friend said we had good seats for this impressive tour, I must not have taken him seriously enough, because I didn’t bring my camera. I didn’t expect to be second-row center, to find myself staring up at Kim Gordon and Wayne Coyne. I could have taken some amazing shots, thanks to over-zealous security guards keeping less-lucky fans away, but memories will have to do.
Along with the show’s expensive (by my standards, anyway) ticket price came admission to the annual New York State Fair, and since I haven’t been in several years, it was a fun experience. Plenty of fair food and sight-seeing occupied the day, and we strolled into the stadium right at 5:00, just as the Magic Numbers were starting their first song.
This four-piece band may not look like your typical indie-rock band, appearing more like aging hippies than ironic 20-somethings you’d expect, but the hook-laden, 60s-influenced pop-rock was a surprising treat. With bouncy, catchy songs that were easy to sing along to, the show completely flew by. The musicians were clearly having a lot of fun, despite the fact that the stadium was barely one-tenth full.
Surprisingly enough, Sonic Youth had the second of four band slots. This was the first of many surprises in the night, and when the band took the stage while it was still light out and the stadium was just over half full, only a small portion of fans seemed truly excited. Some folks pressed forward and sang along, as the seminal rockers pumped out about 45 minutes of precise and tight rock, but this wasn’t the band most were here to see. Personally, despite not having a grounding in Sonic Youth’s many albums, I was thrilled with the precision and the band’s clear enjoyment. Kim Gordon danced around with abandon, and Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo blazed away with their guitars, perfectly complimenting each other. The set was too slow and too heavy on the band’s latest album, Rather Ripped, but those are minimal complaints.
The next surprise was that, clearly, Ween was the band most of the crowd was there to see. It was just dark when Ween finally took the stage with little fanfare, and the fans went nuts. Personally, I was only familiar with the band’s best-known releases, Pure Guava and Chocolate & Cheese, and the band leaned heavily on the latter while finishing with “I Can’t Put My Finger on It” from the former.
But this was a show of clear-cut segments. The first few songs were fantastically catchy and well-performed garagey-rock songs. Then the band drifted into prog-rock craziness for at least 45 minutes, jamming away at songs that reminded me more of a Grateful Dead-influenced Yes than I was prepared for. Finally, the band merged into a hard-rock, 80s hair-metal-styled intensity, and that was similarly unexpected. (Mingled throughout was some country-rock playfulness, as well.) While the crowd was clearly into these stoner-rock cult-rockers, I was definitely not, and the band played so long that I just ended up being bored.
No one could be bored, however, during a Flaming Lips show. And although I’ve heard some crazy stories and expected something fantastic, the brilliance of the Lips’ performance was my biggest surprise of the night. It took nearly a half hour to set up the stage, and for the inexperienced, I’ll do my best to describe the mayhem. A large wooden screen placed close to the front of the stage was the backdrop for projections that were occasionally movie, sometimes music video, and often just video from a camera placed on Coyne’s microphone. The band played in the small space by the front of the stage and didn’t move much, but they didn’t need to, as to the left and right, beautiful women chosen from the audience danced and raised the excitement level of the crowd. Half of these dancers were dressed as Santa Claus, and the other half were aliens in ultra-short dresses, and the stage hands were in super hero costumes. Even the band members were dressed up, Coyne in a slick cream-and-black tux, bassist Michael Ivins in a skeleton costume, guitar/multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd in a silver get-up.
I have never seen an artist take as much pure enjoyment in performing as Wayne Coyne. Bridging the gap between plain goofy and purely fun-loving, Coyne elevated the crowd to a band member, encouraging singing along with the exuberance of a preacher. Although the number of songs themselves seemed few, they seemed to go on forever, and Coyne pulled songs like “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” and “Do You Realize?” to soaring heights.
Meanwhile, at all the crescendos throughout the night, cannons shot confetti and streamers into the crowd. Coyne wielded his own streamer-guns in between holding giant hands, a megaphone that also was equipped with light and smoke machine, a hand puppet, and more. During “Do You Realize?”, shot after shot of confetti blasted into the sky, raining down especially on those of us in the first 10 or so rows, and the effect was amazing.
The band played an assortment of new and older songs, including “Vaseline,” after which Coyne noted “That’s a good song.” You have to love a band that willingly plays its biggest hit and still loves the song. But then, the Flaming Lips seemed to enjoy every single minute on stage, even though this show was near the end of the tour and after playing more than 10 years together. It was a brilliant affair, and my only wish was that Ween played less time and the Lips more.