By Emily Faulks
I remember being at home during the Fall 2020 quarantine period and discovering The Flaming Lips’ Pitchfork documentary of their 1999 album The Soft Bulletin. I did not know them outside of some of their classic songs like “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1” and “She Don’t Use Jelly,” that were conceptually and aesthetically different from this album- this was something special. I hung onto every song on the album for dear life, as its messages of grief and existential dread felt particularly salient during the pandemic. Now that COVID’s presence seems more of a backdrop to “normal” life, I have moved through the Flaming Lips discography to compliment the laughter and joy that has flowed back into my day. The Flaming Lips concert, even with an emotionally varied setlist, captured the loving relationship between the band and their fans- we all celebrated life and celebrated music.
It has been a long time since I have been to a concert alone in Denver, but it seemed fitting as I alone traveled through the stages of grieving with The Soft Bulletin as my guide. I entered while the opener, Particle Kid, started their set. The lead singer, Micah, trotted around stage with a long black cape and cried out with a Kurt Cobain-ish rasp. I couldn’t help but imagine myself being at a reincarnated Nirvana concert until I heard the psychedelic synthesizers and reverb in the guitars drill into hypnotic freestyles that would last for several minutes. The most intriguing part of the set felt more like a performance art piece, something like a “Happening” piece in the 50’s where the last song turned into another long jam after people backstage tossed confetti over Micah’s head in celebration of his birthday while he continued to scream “LIFE- LIFE…” I thought I was witnessing a manifestation of a quarter-life crisis as the drums and guitar patterns started to deteriorate into amorphic static. Micah crawled around the stage continuing to repeat this word for several minutes, playing with the tone and frequency of his voice behind the blaring instruments. The crowd also moved through waves of discomfort and awe watching the performance. It seemed like his mic eventually got cut off, and the band did a short sign off before getting off stage. The opener got me more excited as Particle Kid was clearly a group of performers that revered the interactive nature of The Flaming Lips’ concerts.
After standing around for some time, the lead singer of TFL, Wayne Coyne, walked around the stage getting all the props and goodies for the fans prepared for the show. Finally, the whole band came onstage in the dark, while Wayne stepped in the spotlight with a large robotic red bird. He opened the show by talking about how in previous tours they used to have a different bird that Wayne would pretend to fly around the stage in tandem with the bird noises from “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion.” Unfortunately, long story short, the original bird broke but now they have this new bird that ACTUALLY flies. Wayne started the set by throwing the bird up to the sky and grabbing a spotlight to cast a magical beam up while the bird fluttered around before landing in front of the mic. Everyone was singing along, even if they did not know the “bird song” (like myself) from the brilliantly animated lyrics on the fluorescent panel of lights.
It was not uncommon for Wayne to stop singing through the set and encourage everyone to scream and dance for the sake of spreading love for each other and for having live shows again. “This could be the last concert ever, for all we know,” Wayne said once, “so we might as well make it the best fucking concert ever!” And that it was. After the first song, the tech crew came onstage with a leaf blower and started to fill a clear plastic ball with air, while Wayne stepped inside the orb. This would be his temporary home, he would rock back and forth and roll around while singing in his perfect, inhuman voice. I was not expecting him to sound exactly like his recorded songs because of age and production edits, but it was so uncanny seeing him and hearing him the same as I would imagine.
The first time he stepped out of his clear ball was to move to a different inflatable structure: the infamous pink robot. Standing at about 20 feet tall, this massive giant danced with air to “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1” with Wayne playing hide-and-seek under its legs. The whole concert seemed like a return to childhood; we were encouraged to move freely and inspire each other to be fully immersed in the music. A few songs later another massive inflatable structure, a rainbow, arched over most of the large stage with Wayne in his ball singing underneath. Streams of confetti would fly out from the stage or from Wayne’s confetti cannons. Halfway through, the whole band played happy birthday to Particle Kids, Micah, and Wayne praised the band for their passionate opening set. Throughout the show, Wayne exuded the most positive energy both through his singing and his actions. In the jam section of “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell,” Wayne picked up a spotlight attached to a cord and lassoed it manically around, inciting the audience into a dance frenzy. A few songs later, a medical team had to go into the audience and Wayne stopped the show to make sure everyone was safe.
After the band finished playing some of their classic songs like “Do You Realize??” and “She Don’t Use Jelly,” They finished their set with my favorite song: “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate.” I screamed in surprise because it is such a sad song- there was no way, I thought, that they would play that! But it is also one of the most beautiful songs ever. Wayne played “Waitin’ For a Superman” earlier in the show, another song from The Soft Bulletin, prefacing that it was a sad song but we would all create a supportive environment. No such warning was given for this song, but I think it was because he knew we would be ready. I felt the love from the people around me and from the band as they blended their guitars with surreal ease. In a lot of ways, the only verse from “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” encapsulated the message from the show: “Love in our life is just too valuable/ Oh, to feel for even a second without it/ But life without death is just impossible/Oh, to realize something is ending within us.” Wayne and the rest of TFL underscored throughout the show, especially in the wake of COVID, that our bodies are impermanent, but love is infinite; “if you give someone love you will receive it thirty fold back,” Wayne preached between the song. The band went off briefly and then played four more songs for their encore, ending with “All We Have Is Now” and the classic hit from The Soft Bulletin “Race for the Prize,” again, highlighting their message of love and human mortality. The show was a cathartic experience for me as well as insightful. With prosaic musings similar to that of Dead & Company’s Bob Weir, Wayne opened up with personal stories and feelings that made me feel like I knew him a little better.
I hope that The Flaming Lips return to Denver sometime in the future, but Wayne left the set with a big question mark over the prospect of another tour. Whatever happens, we both left knowing that this show touched the lives of so many fans. I walked out of the venue with exceeded expectations and a long drive ahead.