For a band that has been recording and touring for 35 years, one would think The Flaming Lips would grow predictable. And they are: they have been playing the same live show for roughly the last 15 years, and the theatrics have not changed much. But once they hit the stage and the confetti flies over the orchestral melody of “Race for the Prize,” little else matters as everyone present rejoices within the rock n’ roll spectacle that Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd, and Michael Ivins have perfected in the last two decades.
On Monday at the Georgia Theater, the now seven piece band of psychedelic punk performers returned to Athens for the first time since their 2007 laser-heavy landing at the Classic Center where they relied heavily on the 2006 album At War With the Mystics and its predecessor Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots from 2002. Combined with the now seminal 1999 album The Soft Bulletin, this trio of albums measures up to any three album run from any band. Still, if you strip away the stage theatrics, light show, balloons, blow up rainbows and eyeballs, a giant pink robot, and of course, Coyne’s giant hamster ball, you would still see a band lacking the rock stage ego of groups with that level of studio output.
I’ve probably seen Coyne sing “Do you realize / that everyone you know someday will die” over a dozen times now, but his efforts to connect with each individual in the audience somehow still remains sincere — even if the stage theatrics, lights, and ticket prices aren’t anymore. Ivins’ Georgia Bulldogs hockey jersey was a nice touch, too.
While Phish’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” cover is still tops, the Lips’ version is a fitting, more traditional introduction before the Lips launch the venue into orbit. The audience tore apart a balloon structure reading “F*** Yeah Athens” during “Fight Test” after Coyne sat down in the audience to invite everyone to chorally ackle the mammoth pink robot erected on stage. The thousand-strong voices singing in unison certainly defeated those evil-natured robots.
During the “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” I realized that I had already run into five co-workers and two candidates for local office. The same teachers and lawyers later cheered on an eyepatch wearing frontman riding a Pegasus through the audience during a song called “There Should Be Unicorns.” So yeah, adulthood might be even weirder than the 1990s adolescence where most of us discovered the band.
Throughout the show, the room became a who’s who of characters from the last 19 years of living in Athens, Georgia, and the Lips were a major part of that soundtrack for the first decade. Other songs such as “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton,” “Feeling Yourself Descend,” and one of my favorites “The W.A.N.D.” brought back memories of not just those people, but also how those albums were omnipresent during those years and just how powerful the larger outdoor festival sets were that made the Lips somewhat of a (weird) household name.
Before the show we posted up next to a platform in front of the soundboard wondering if Coyne would roll the hamster ball there, but little did I know that it was now part of a David Bowie tribute during an excellent cover of “Space Oddity.” Before Coyne rolled the ball into orbit, a large red balloon bouncing about the audience passed in front of him — as if he was about to travel beyond the red planet Mars. Afterwards, Coyne discussed how inspiring it was to see Bowie do and fully realize whatever he wanted to as an artist. Similarly The Flaming Lips are also doing whatever they want as artists.
During the encore, I remembered my introduction to the band at age 13 when Jon Stewart was still on MTV with the Lips’ performance of “She Don’t Use Jelly,” so it felt somewhat full circle to be all grown up and still singing the same stupid lyrics to the same bad garage rock band that made me run out to buy Transmissions From the Satellite Heart — still one of the worst albums I bought as a teenager.
The night closed as Coyne prodded us to embrace all of our feelings by reminding the crowd that many in attendance might be enjoying themselves, but some are probably experiencing real sadness and pain in their own lives. As one college student yelled “Smile!” in response, I couldn’t help but feel like his point flew right over her head. Then I grew self-conscious while realizing that I was basically thinking “Get off my lawn.” But it was okay because The Flaming Lips had just taken us all on another journey through just about everything, and they’re still making music.