The Flaming Lips, the Decemberists, et al, Treasure Island Music Festival, October 18, 2009: My club-bred bunker mentality and "it's not a gig unless you see the whites of their eyes" philosophy of concertgoing sit at odds with learned festival M.O. So many bands, so many booths, that awesome-looking Ferris Wheel--too bad all I really want to do is secure a spot, make sure none of the thousands of potential interlopers get in the way, and pretend that if I squint and ignore all the distractions, it's just like being at Cafe du Nord or the Great American Music Hall!
Thus, I had to sacrifice a couple of highly anticipated sets at the Tunnel Stage when I found a decent post at the rail for the Bridge Stage. As promised by the festival organizers, I could hear parts of Spiral Stairs and Bob Mould's sets--including, respectively, "Whalebones" and "A Good Idea"--from the other stage, but it wasn't the same as being there. Then again, I had made my festival bed. Bob Mould's set marked the last of the double dipping. From that point on, the crowds and overall hubbub were simply too loud to allow for anything but vaguely thumping bass notes to carry over.
My encampment at the Bridge Stage brought both highlights and, er, non-highlights, but I'm not one to dwell on the latter. Early in the afternoon, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down kicked out the jams. I'm gonna play the race card and say it's awesome to see a Vietnamese chick rocking out onstage, but I also happen to like her music. Thus, score on both counts. Represent!
It was several hours later that one of the festival's major attractions (as far as I'm concerned) assembled. It was the Decemberists, in Hazards of Love mode, indicated by the surfeit of drums onstage. Time constraints forced them to present an abridged version of the opus, but the band hit all the highlights, including the thrilling multiple-drum rumble of "The Rake's Song."
The Decemberists' set differed from their show in May in other aspects too. For one thing, a gorgeous animated film played in the background. On another level, I detected an increased confidence with their roles in the Hazards of Love epic. And in case I wasn't convinced before, this show confirmed it: Shara Worden is indispensable to the album's performance. Not only did she pull you right into the saga, her lusty, snarling vocals lent the Decemberists an edge that can be overlooked in their music.
Alas, they didn't have time to trot out tracks from any other albums or the covers that have been delighting other audiences across the country, nor could they indulge in the banter that characterizes their shows, but the undiluted Hazards of Love attack remains a formidable feat. I applaud them for sticking to their musical guns.
You don't need a calculator to figure out that I spent several hours standing in a cold, windy field to glimpse upon the Flaming Lips, but I can assure you that every second melted away as soon as the opening notes of "Race for the Prize" rang out. In fact, you can say we got a performance-plus, as the band and crew's setup routine attracted plenty of eyeballs and elicited enviable cheers even before they played a single note.
A fair share of these hoots and hollers arose at the mere sight of the eternally debonair Wayne Coyne, as he ambled about and inspected the setup. I'm going to say it:
As I was saying: Their efforts added up to an all-orange set, including a large jungle-gym-like structure framing a video screen. Elsewhere, every amp, mic stand, crew uniform, and even the gong looked like it could've come straight out of a Home Depot employee handbook.
You'd think that this forthright display would diffuse the collective energy, but quite the opposite. When "Race for the Prize" started up the set and the confetti rained down and the balloons were released, the crowd moved in unison, jumping, shouting, and singing--myself included.
As festival favorites, the Flaming Lips are true road warriors, but that big-umbrella approach has kept me from seeing them over the years (the aforementioned festival phobia). Even when I saw them at the Reading Festival 10 years ago, they played one of the smaller tents and urged the crowd to help in drowning out the sounds of some major band--maybe Metallica?--coming from the big stage. Before Treasure Island, the largest venue I'd ever seen them play was at the Warfield, and the last time I caught them in concert was three years ago at Bimbo's 365 Club--a ridiculously intimate performance, especially compared to the vast crowds they entertain these days. I loved the show at Bimbo's, but I suspect they may have held back part of their usual sensory blitz in that smaller space.
There were no such doubts tonight, from the band members' entrance through a door in the video screen to the halfway pornographic introductory movie to Wayne's hamster ball, all of which were new spectacles to me. Dancers flanked either side of the stage, and much later in the show, rubber monsters joined them. In between, we saw streamer guns and confetti cannons. When it comes to the Flaming Lips, too much is never enough, and I refuse to play the cynic. The visceral delight they inspire is too rare and too gratifying. They're a national treasure.
Complementing the more sideshow-worthy aspects of their gig was a good helping of new (to me) arrangements and even an obscure older track ("Enthusiasm for Life"). Amid the crescendos and surges that mark many of the band's songs, Steve Drozd worked up several sparer arrangements, paring some songs ("Fight Test") down to just Wayne and himself or, in the case of "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots," an enthusiastic crowd sing-along.
Rounding out the show was one more element: the human factor. In spite of the festival setting, we saw some truly heartfelt moments. Much of this originated with the ever charming Wayne, and he had many kind words for San Francisco, one of the first cities the band played in their long history. I'm sure his mention of the I-Beam was lost on the young listeners, but some of us appreciated the history lesson. Wayne also pointed out a woman watching from the pit; she turned out to be Roberta Peterson, the rep who signed the band to Warner Bros. The rest is history.
A young woman standing next to me had created a pink robot head, and deep into the set (not to mention after dozens of ear-shattering screams on her part), Mr. Coyne finally took notice. She probably would've died a happy girl at that point, but it wasn't over yet; her friend happened to execute a perfect throw, landing the box nearly at Wayne's feet. Soon thereafter, the robot head touched Wayne's head, and I think the young lady died all over again. We were rooting for her all along.
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