Friday, 20 November 2009

The Flaming Lips: Birmingham Academy 17 November 2009

Last Tuesday I made my biennial pilgrimage to see The Flaming Lips, this time at the new O2 Academy in Birmingham. I’m always exceptionally bouncy before a Flaming Lips gig, like an excitable child waiting to see Santa. And there are similarities; lots of confetti and glitter about the place and a tall, smiley, cordial looking man surrounded by lots of strangely dressed little people…

I found myself fairly close to the stage (which was pretty brave considering the fact that I am nursing a broken arm) and in the perfect position to experience the full Flaming Lips party extravaganza in its entirety. Yes, you can hear perfectly well from the seats on the balcony and see the fantastic stage set, but it’s not quite the same experience unless your hair is covered in confetti and there are large inflatable balls bouncing off your head! Wayne did his usual milling about on stage before the gig started; sound testing, checking equipment, saying hi to the crowd and informing the front two rows that they have five minutes to finish their beers before he uses them as a springboard to launch himself into the crowd at the opener. I love the fact that he still does this before each gig. It’s like the head teacher coming out on stage to check that the doll is in the crib before the school nativity play starts. Seeing Wayne and the rest of the band onstage beforehand breaks down the performer-audience barrier that is commonplace with most headline acts and brings a homely, almost amateurish (in a good way) feel to the whole thing. It makes you want to jump up on stage and help the crew to gaffer tape the mic stand down.

The support, Stardeath and White Dwalfs, were very entertaining and had the attention of the entire crowd throughout their set (I’ve had severe difficulty getting their cover of Madonna’s Borderline out of my head ever since!). Then the show started with the band being ‘born’ through a giant video screen at the back of the stage, quickly followed by Wayne who emerged in his giant, inflatable hamster ball, rolling out over the heads of the crowd and causing everyone to surge forward to get a touch of the ball in a ‘hem of his cloth’ kind of way. When he was safely deposited back on the stage, the opening bars of Race for the Prize fired up and the venue was flooded with confetti, streamers and a number of huge inflatable balloons that we began batting at each other like overgrown children on a food additive high. There were yetis and huge insects onstage and at one point Wayne sang whilst atop a man in a gorilla suit…

The set list followed the usual format with some tracks from the new album ‘Embryonic’ thrown in. Convinced of the Hex, Evil, Silver Trembling Hands and See the Leaves sounded fantastic and provided a good 50-50 mix of meditative and raucous tasters from the new album. Yes the Lip’s set list is always predictable – the hamster ball entrance and Race For The Prize at the opener, rounding off with She Don’t Use Jelly and Do You Realize? (my favourite Flaming Lips track and definitely in my top 5 favourite tracks of all time) as an encore - but I really wouldn’t have it any other way. There is an almost Masonic, ritualistic element to a Lips gig and messing with the ‘order of service’ would be like messing with the laws of nature.

But the gig did feel a little different than usual. The atmosphere was very mellow at times, largely due, I suspect, to the stripped down, sing-along versions of Fight Test and Yoshimi, the anti-war message relayed by Wayne’s touching rendition of Taps and the extended version of the unifying, love-in that is Do You Realize? Looking at the crowd around me they seemed poised at any moment to throw their arms around the stranger next to them, declare their love for the human race and break into Auld Lang Syne. There was a nostalgic, reflective vibe to the night, but certainly not a miserable one. The highs were just as high as I anticipated and every single person in the venue was jumping like a nutter and screaming their lungs out at some point (when not choking on confetti in the process…)

It was an excellent gig and I suspect that the Flaming Lips could not perform badly if they tried. They could cover Britney Spears songs all night and the crowd would be happy, as long as the confetti kept coming and Wayne led them in a rousing chorus at some point. And Wayne is such an amiable, lovable bloke that he could punch you in the face and you would apologise. In fact, an idiot who heckled him at one point was shot daggers by everyone around us and I honestly thought that there would be a public lynching. Plus there’s a real sense of solidarity in the fans at a Lip’s gig. When walking around town afterwards you can tell who has been to the gig by spotting the people with the wide grins on their faces (and the ones struggling to run away with large inflatable balloons that they’ve nicked when security wasn’t looking).

But Lips concerts are not just kid’s parties for grown-ups, the band continue to produce awesome music that keeps the fans coming back for more. In fact, in the current economic downturn and unsettled social climate they should be made compulsory listening for everyone. I will certainly be making the pilgrimage to see them next time they are in town and will continue to do so each time they bring their tour to the UK. Long live the Flaming Lips and all who sail in her.

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