Houston, you don't get a spectacle like this but maybe once a year. Last October we had U2 with the Claw inside Reliant Stadium, putting on a show that literally had the building shaking with spirit and goodwill. Sunday night at Eleanor Tinsley Park, the Flaming Lips closed the second Summerfest with love, lasers, and Brother Wayne Coyne preaching from his mirror-balled pulpit.
Nothing else this year will come close to what happened for two hours just blocks away from downtown, save maybe a Led Zeppelin reunion at the Toyota Center. But even then we doubt that Robert Plant will have gigantic foam hands shooting green lasers from the palms. The hour before the Lips' first solo Houston date in a decade reminded Aftermath of the minutes before an electrical storm. The energy in the air was thick and musty as stagehands got volunteers into orange jumpsuits and brought balloons to stage on the Lips' stomping grounds. We all knew this was going to change the entire mood of the Houston world for a few hours; people were waiting for that release they had only read about or seen in concert films. Damn the mud of the day, the sunburned skin and the alcohol-induced lethargy. Even on your television, their wonderment comes through. Live, it's like a big sweaty and glittery hug. The crowd was jammed into the space in front of the stage before the band's gear was pulled out.
Lips shows aren't gigs, they are events. They subsist on festivals, the better to throw down at. You have a captive audience, a huge palette of souls to work on, and enough physical room to make every gesture grand. They are the fearless and freaky U2, perfect for those of us who need a shot of mysticism to go with saving the world.
If you don't leave a Flaming Lips show with your face sore from grinning like an idiot or even with wetted eyes, Coyne would probably put on a show just for you and you alone to pull you into his spaced party. He had been on the grounds as early as 7 a.m. to see that the set was to the band's spec and even watched locals like Muhammadali and Black Congress play on the main stage he would occupy later. He seemed to have taken a shine to BC, getting a copy of their newest seven-inch after their set. The band and their cast of drafted local dancing volunteers hit the stage around sundown. The famous walking bubble came out first, with Coyne manning the inside for a few minutes until he came back onstage and emerged from it to grab the mike to rev up eight-minute opener "The Fear", which lead into "Worm Mountain" from last year's metallic-garage record Embryonic. Each song had its own mood lighting and attitude, with Coyne's visions coming through for each five-minute movement. The setlist was marked with notes on what he would use on each one, be it streamer guns, a megaphone, or a maracas. That set list was also very heavy on Embryonic material, which on record is an acquired yet worthwhile taste. It's easily one of the most live-ready Lips albums, at least since 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Judging by the list, "Waitin' For A Superman" was cut out for time and would have been the sole entry from The Soft Bulletin of the night (almost).
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The band's pop breakthrough, "She Don't Use Jelly," came forth (literally) with a recorded Jon Stewart introduction from the single's first peek at the charts back in 1993 from his first MTV series. Who would have known during the first Clinton administration that the band wasn't a one-hit wonder and would turn into the brawny live band they are now. At no time did the band devolve into any rote jamming; each minute onstage with the band there was a happening afoot. Bassist Michael Ivins was sitting for most of the show, only getting up during the encore break. Houston-born multi-instrumentalist Steve Drozd seems to do 16 jobs at once with Coyne handling guitars and his own small set of cymbals.
"In the Morning of Magicians" soothed everyone mid-set and the Yoshimi track would be on our own bedtime soundtrack if we had a bedtime or the wherewithal to make music for it. "Powerless" from Embryonic was spooky and hypnotic and you could see faces agape throughout the hill facing the stage. No doubt some left last night wondering why they didn't know about the Lips sooner or maybe they just had their love reaffirmed for the band. "Pompeii AM Gotterdammerung" from 2006's At War With the Mystics came with a plea for peace from Coyne, and he had the whole crowd throw up peace signs for the duration. As much as in the sky the band may come off, they still have their feet firmly on the ground when it comes down to wars and death. What they do brightens people's lives and Coyne sees the world as a beautiful place, not fit for destruction and pain. The concept of war is the most foreign thing in the Lips' universe. "The W.A.N.D." followed with "Convinced of the Hex" coming up behind it, making a one-two punch of the bands most anthemic metallic tracks. A short encore break produced "Do You Realize", which echoed out onto the streets of Houston surrounding the park. People stood in place, instantly recognizing the love song within the first few bars. It's like an old-school film intermission score for the 21st century, conveying everything they stand for in three minutes. After last year's Summerfest, this Aftermath-er opined aloud about such a thing as the Lips coming to Houston for the next edition of the newborn festival. We wrote on Rocks Off that "the thought of seeing Wayne Coyne floating his signature bubble into Buffalo Bayou just made our heart grow ten times its size." This year, Houston got the skyline and the bubble, which thankfully didn't get in the bayou as we had predicted in our sun-stricken state last August. Summerfest is making musical dreams come to pass for Houstonians and if the Lips are just the beginning, may we suggest our pick for next year? Arcade Fire.