The Flaming Lips
Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013
Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
Better than: Listening to Metal Machine Music on repeat (Sorry, Lou.)
The members of Tame Impala are dressed like the Spice Girls, and they stop between songs to behold the see of costumes before them: Oompa Loompas, rolls of cash holding bags of drugs, flip-phones, Sriracha bottles, an excessive number of Garths. Frontman Kevin Parker says they don't really have Halloween in Australia, so this is pretty fucking insane.
And it is. With the costumes, the massive crowd (people seem to be occupying every niche within Bill Graham Civic, all night), Tame Impala's ever-morphing light display (which looks like something out of iTunes circa '04), and the paisley punch of its music, this part of the night feels more like a rave than a rock show.
Tame Impala makes trippy music with guitars and drums, but moments of it are surprisingly danceable, and other moments are powerful in other ways: The floatiness of "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" and the bruising rock of "Elephant" elicit loud cheers and clouds of good vibes from the crowd. This is great, we think. Ideal even. Halloween in San Francisco, and yeah the band is from Australia, but we're all dressed up and grooving along to psych-rock that somehow feels more modern than psych-rock should, and the Australians playing it are enjoying the spectacle, too.
So how do the Flaming Lips manage to ruin it?
Well, maybe not ruin it -- but after announcing their presence onstage with what feels like a 10-minute blast of single notes and strobe lights, as red balloons and red confetti floated through the room, the Flaming Lips go into a roughly 90-minute set that does a better job of serving themselves than pleasing a goofy crowd on Halloween. The 'Lips are touring behind this year's dark, challenging new cred-grab of an album, The Terror, and its songs -- or rather, its long, cacophonous grooves -- dominate the setlist. They toss the crowd a few classics, like "Race for the Prize," "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton," and "Do You Realize?!" But most of the show is a strobed-out blast of repetitive, abrasive noise. And real talk, the 8,500 people who paid to see the Flaming Lips on Halloween don't give a shit about Wayne Coyne needing to prove he's some deep genius with an album that's far more difficult than fun. They came to party on Halloween -- since the Flaming Lips are known for putting on a silly good time -- and they don't really get it, at least not as much as anyone wants, because most of the Lips' set feels like an assault rather than a party*.
Then there are the visuals. Coyne has always had a creepy side (see: frequently Tweeting pictures of his ex-wife naked), and now that he's separated and sad, it's coming out more strongly. During the set he stands atop a gnarled stump of what could be light-filled roots, and during many songs the lights rush downward in such a way that the whole thing looks like Wayne's crotch is spraying white light downward. Meanwhile, behind him, the large video screen shows a colorful parabola, slightly changing in its outline but retaining a basic shape, which looks decidedly like either a phallus or a vagina, depending. So the image of Coyne onstage is of his crotch spraying while light while his gown-wearing silhouette stands front of a massive vagina. Are we reading too much into this? Maybe. We could go off here about how the visuals echoed the way the Flaming Lips were trying to dominate us with their linear, abrasive, unforgiving, miserable music, but we'll stop. Basically, there was some kind of big red genitalia onscreen through most of the 'Lips' difficult, unsatisfying show. When Wayne said, "We may look scary but we come in the name of love" toward the end of the set, I thought, 'Oh, that's what all creepy old men say."
Personal bias: I've seen the Flaming Lips maybe four or five times, and I like them, with reservations.
By the way: I waded into the Flaming Lips crowd with a notebook -- full of scribblings about Tame Impala's set -- and five minutes later found I no longer had one. Amazing that a Flaming Lips show could do what hundreds of violent, sweaty, chaotic other shows couldn't, but then people are kind of monstrous on Halloween.
*Okay: We can quibble about the rights/responsibilities of a band touring behind an album, and whether the band is obligated and/or entitled to play that album live. But if that latest album is challenging even for diehard fans, it's probably not the right kind of music to play to a huge crowd on one of the most party-obsessed nights of the year.