The Flaming Lips keep one toe in the real world at Queen Elizabeth Theatre

The Flaming Lips with Klangstof at Queen Elizabeth Theatre 12/5/17

Photo by Ryan Johnson
Photo by Ryan Johnson

Over nearly three-and-a-half decades, the Flaming Lips have been exalted to psychedelic wizard (or psychedelic mad scientist) status. They seem to occupy a fantastical world filled with fetus-shaped soaps, ayahuasca trips with collaborator and tourmate Miley Cyrus, blood-infused vinyl, and life-sized, anatomically correct chocolate hearts and skulls. But as last Monday’s packed crowd at Queen Elizabeth Theatre saw for themselves, the Flaming Lips live less in a world of magic and more in a world of magic realism.

Amsterdam-based indie rockers Klangstof could quickly become a band to watch. Along with signing to Mind of a Genius Records and opening for the Flaming Lips, this year, Klangstof will claim the distinction of being the first Dutch band to play Coachella.

Although Klangstof’s name includes the Norwegian word for “reverb” (“klang”), their music didn’t contain much if any of it. In fact, they cleanly built towards instrumental rock crescendos lineally. But then Klangstof broke into tubular synths, ushering a wobbly stretch of songs into their set. By the time Klangstof wrapped with a pair of songs including “Amansworld”, which burst with guitars, they had gone from relatively unknown by the Queen Elizabethans to more than respectable, more than deserved cheer.

One might assume a band as visually and spiritually loud as the Flaming Lips would hit the stage in a flash. But frontperson Wayne Coyne had to re-do his walk-on a couple of times due to earpiece issues. Once he overcame them, he settled into a conductor’s position, swooping his arms in grandiose motions while standing with his back to the audience. After a couple of minutes of instrumental swells and denouements, the band exploded like the Big Bang into the gleaming comet “Race for the Prize”. All at once, smoke shot from cannons on the sides of the stage. Streamers pirouetted in the air next to a screen of confetti and beach ball-sized balloons.

Dancers dressed in costumes with giant fish, bunny, lizard, and star heads joined the party on the next song “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1”. The rapid heartrate pulsing of “Pompeii Am Götterdämmerung” led to Coyne, backlit in molten reds and oranges, smashing a gong over and over as light strobed and fanned out in beams towards the crowd with each strike. After “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song”, possibly the Lips’ purest, most outward expression of exuberance, the piano chords of “What Is the Light”? hung in the air, lingering like the slow-floating confetti. Coyne directed the audience to clap loudly, then quietly, then loudly again as an inflatable rainbow sprung from flaccidity and arched over him.

If the extravagant visual delights weren’t satisfying enough thus far, the Flaming Lips’ signature prop finally came into play during song number eight. From backstage, Coyne rolled out from within a plastic bubble where he sang a full cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”.

Other highlights over the Flaming Lips’ two-and-a-quarter-hour set included “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate”, “The W.A.N.D.” during which the band waved two giant eyeballs and a giant pair of lips, and “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton”. Everyone left the stage during “Spoonful” (before re-emerging twice, once for “She Don’t Use Jelly” and then again for “Do You Realize??”), but the word “LOVE” spelled in bubble letters throbbed on the back-screen. A vocal track repeated the word over and over. I watched a single confetti flake twirl to the floor, in front of two strangers standing next to each other. They both noticed the shred of paper, but I will never be sure if they noticed each other as each watched the confetti drift. Even if I was the only one who was privy to that shared moment, it felt like magic existed in every happening that night, in every molecule in that room; magic was literally in the air.

The Flaming Lips’ live show is modern legend. Even non-fans have heard tales of being rolled over by Wayne Coyne in his plastic bubble or have seen photos of costumed dancers and painted audience members crowding the Flaming Lips’ stages. It’s understandable why most would say the Flaming Lips create their own world onstage, an absolute spectacle of radiant colours, animal costumes, dazzling lights, and expressions of love. But as Coyne said when he acknowledged the several busy stagehands who erected the rainbow, “It’s more magical when we realize it’s us doing it. That rainbow didn’t just appear; there were guys out here plugging shit in.” By dispelling the fantasy – by breaking the fourth wall – for even just a moment, Coyne reminded everyone that it’s not the lights or costumes or colours or props that make a show amazing, it’s the humans behind them. Coyne reminded everyone of the fact that humans are capable of great things, and the Flaming Lips are capable of great music and a completely amazing show.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu