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Flaming Lips, Ghostland Observatory, Stardeath And White Dwarf @ Greek Theater 8/17/09

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“Please don’t get the band stoned!”, begged Wayne Coyne about three songs into the Flaming Lips’ set at the Greek last Monday. “I don’t even like to smoke bud anymore… but we like it when you guys smoke bud!” Having just watched VH1’s career retrospective on Cheech and Chong a couple nights earlier, it was hard not to think of Chong alerting his audience, “We’re a lot funnier when you’re stoned, man!” Within moments, Coyne was delivering his lines from atop the shoulders of a giant gorilla. Where have I seen that before? But it's OK. Some gags never lose their charm, especially if, you know...

Coyne’s admitted that the Lips have spent the last twenty years basically trying to compete with the audio-visual mindfuck that the Butthole Surfers, another psychedelic band from the South-Central United States, perfected in 1987. But where the Surfers went for head-splitting trippiness through bad vibes and nightmarish sensory overload, the Lips aim for sheer ecstasy. They’d never subject their audience to the car-crash and genital-surgery films the Surfers used to induce altered states by jolting the senses; their trippy shit is purely of the good-time variety. It’s a rock concert as scripted by Sid and Marty Krofft, with an army of fursuited Yetis on one side of the stage and an opposing army of hot chicks in tight white tops and kitten ears on the other, with trippy woosh-woosh visuals on the giant screens. It’s far-out stuff, but friendly. They invite the listener to come on along. Their whole trip is summed up in the title of one song they did at the Greek: “Enthusiasm For Life Defeats Existential Fear.”

It’s been ten years since the Lips radically changed their onstage MO while touring for the album The Soft Bulletin. What used to be essentially a charming, fucked-up punk band with acid tendencies changed, with drummer Steven Drozd taking over guitar and keyboards, and Wayne dropping the guitar for 90% of the set. The show became a half-live, half-on-tape presentation with props, costumes and films, with the trio of remaining musicians playing along to tapes of the drum tracks and the lush arrangements of their new music.

While this basic setup hasn’t changed in a decade, this year’s most significant alteration is that the films are no longer projected at the stage; now they have a gi-fucking-normous LCD screen covering the back of the stage, complete with a door, so the band members can be “birthed” through a massive glowing vagina at the show’s inception. They’ve also got a live drummer once again, and even a second guitarist, though finding out it’s not the return of Ronald Jones, from the band’s 1992-98 lineup, is a tad disappointing. They still play along to tapes, mostly - two of the three tracks from Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots are played as piano lounge standards, minus their familiar, driving rhythm tracks. But all the rest sound tougher live than they did on record. Wayne’s playing more guitar, and they have a tougher, more metallic edge than they did during the Yoshimi shows.

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Along with the expected bunch of songs off their last three albums, a few were surprises: two from the band’s yet-to-be-released LP Embryonic, the aforementioned beloved obscurity “Enthusiasm”, and an utterly crushing version of “Mountainside,” a track from the band’s seminal 1991 album In A Priest Driven Ambulance that, far as I know, hasn’t been played in LA for at least fourteen years. The new tracks bode well for the album, which sounds like a step into a room of synthesizers that have been jammed into badly overdriven amps. Having spent some years stepping back from feedback while discovering how to make music breathtakingly lovely, the band seems to be taking pleasure in using sound as a weapon again.

Otherwise, someone who’d seen their 2006 tour might complain of an overly-familiar set list and stage production, but since I skipped that one, for the first time since 1992, about 60% of it was new to me. Some have accused the band of falling into schtick, and there’s some truth to the claim. Coyne’s just as prone to applause-baiting as Ray Davies in the Kinks’ arena days, which maybe explains his reluctance to retire any trick in the book, from the furries to the giant ballons to the human hamster ball he faithfully trots out every show, now that it’s become expected. The fact that they get it over with in the opening two minute instrumental suggests they’re aware it’s expected. But what the hell. Kiss has survived on schtick for a lot longer than that. Like the Lips, their schtick is positive, about having a good time rather than about having a bad time, which means there’s always room for more people in the audience. At the end of the day, it’s hard to be cynical about a good time, so find one where you can..

Openers Stardeath And White Dwarfs, which include Coyne’s cousing Dennis, shifted between sounding like a 1972-vintage band from an English free festival, and a fairly blatant, but effective, copy of the Flaming Lips. Thwarted at the opening by a horrendous sound mix, they gained power as the sound balance came together, fiinishing with a memorable electronica warble through Madonna’s “Borderline”. They’re good players with good taste, and their Warners debut The Birth is a worthwhile pickup for any psych completists you know. Techno act Ghostland Observatory performed a few tracks as a guitar/ drums duo before breaking out the sequencers, drum machine and laser lights for their personal brand of hipster disco. I spent about half their set thinking they’d outworn their welcome, but there were occasional flashes of brilliance, and I can’t deny my head was seen banging to the relentless beep-fuckin’-boop more than once.