“They came to Fisheries with a giant blue marquee and said there was going to be music and art. Their programme brought several hundred of us to the blue marquee on a Thursday evening, July 26. The Flaming Lips arrived in smoke and colours with balloons, confetti, a giant bubble, instruments and a unicorn. Music bounced across the heads of the dancing crowd as the band played beneath a giant pink robot. Eyes and lips were dancing across the stage and then when the rainbow arch was inflated and raised above the crowd – above the chants and cheers – everything exploded into a supernova of lights”. (Official Statement from a woman with orange confetti in her hair)
Last night at the main stage of the Galway International Arts Festival, several hundred psychedelic rock and experimental punk lovers attended The Flaming Lips’ concert and witnessed an unreal, once-in-a-lifetime performance. Roughly a dozen classic Lips tunes and gems from the vault were heard under the Big Top and across the city. From the moment the concert began with a single pop of confetti from front man Wayne Coyne, until the encore of raised arms and millions of confetti raindrops under a rainbow arch, the band from Oklahoma gave an outstanding interstellar performance.
As the encore reached its height of unified harmonies, something happened. According to reports from attendees – most of whom were covered in streams of coloured confetti ribbons – the band exploded in a flash of blinking white lights. Several people called it “a supernova”. Standing two rows from the pre-supernova performance and the eventual bang, in sweat drenched hair I took it all in.
Wayne Coyne runs onto the stage and with a smile fires a single confetti gun into the crowd. And he’s gone again. As they fall on my face and onto the shoulders of the row in front, the atmosphere of excited anticipation under the giant blue tent rises. Then, the band enters – cannons of smoke shoot into the air, dozens of giant rubber balloons are thrown from the stage and confetti rains down in massive volumes. In time honoured Lips style, the band plugs into our senses to raucous cheers under the anthem of ‘Race for the Prize’ (from The Soft Bulletin, 1999).
If you’ve ever watched a live recording of The Flaming Lips you’d be expecting an explosive intro. But you would never be prepared for the actual lived experience. In the same realm of experience as past gigs embedded in my memory box – Roger Waters, Aphex Twin, and Flying Lotus being the top few – this is up there at peak connection.
Everything is flying around us, the music, people’s arms, and the giant balloons bounce across the crowd like beach balls, occasionally punched into the air by a well timed fist. The band are dressed in colours, a possibly green (hard to tell because of the lights) wig, a rainbow flag, silver suit and green toad backpack.
The opening anthem continues and Coyne holds the first of the specially curated silver inflatables over his head. FUCK YEAH GALWAY pays tribute to the band’s first trip to the city.
Between songs the lights switch off and the crowd cheers into darkness, with flickers of light from a few slow to fade beacons on the stage. Next we hear the first notes of the cracker of a single ‘Fight Test’ (from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, 2002 – though this song has a troubled past). It’s always a unifying experience when everyone is singing the lyrics, and during the second broadcast our fists rise into the air punching the beats and clashes in time with the band.
Since the entire performance features stage props, mostly inflatables of various sizes which sometimes function as wearable body suits, headpieces or giant wings, there are a few moments to reclaim a regular breathing rhythm and rub a dry hand across my forehead. The lights are low and the stage crew set about preparing the pink robot. As the air breathes life into its body and it begins to tower above us, the previously unrecognisable lump of pink material is now the infamous character that sits at the centre of the 2002 (un)intended concept album – an album which pushed the band to even greater heights of success and critical acclaim.
It lives. And to a slow tempo we hear the infamous strums of ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Part 1’. One of the most quoted tracks from the album of the same name, the hero of the story is named after Yoshimi P-We from the band The Boredoms, a friend whose scream features on ‘Part 2’ later on in the record. Coyne pokes his head between the legs of the pink robot and in almost perfect unison we sing with the band about the kung-fu master and her mission to save humanity. The giant rubber balloons are constantly bouncing over our heads and in solidarity with our main woman I punch them with a loud “WOO WOO”.
The band dip in and out of just a few their most iconic albums. From their eleventh studio album, At War with the Mystics (2006), we are told that all the words we need to know are “yeah yeah yeah”. A telling intro to a song about the abuse of power.
The Flaming Lips have space rock vibes resonating throughout much of their discography. After The Soft Bulletin (1999), which followed a thoroughly experimental release in 1997, the arrangements of music got a bit more wavy, more layered with less punk dye than in the earlier years. Again, we’re in near total darkness and the band’s silhouettes are on stage. Every now and then I get a face full of giant bouncing balloon. We can hear the occasional ‘pop’ of bursting inflatables through the ongoing cheers and screams. A bell chimes, the stage is illuminated – and paying tribute to a who-gives-a-fuck space rock ethos, Coyne moves through the crowd sitting astride a life sized pink coloured unicorn. ‘There Should be Unicorns’ is from the band’s most recent album, Oczy Mlody released last year, and for me the visual style of this release evokes memories of the scene sub-culture which washed across our teenage years. The recording is brief, because sometimes it’s better to just let things happen. This is one of those times.
As the lights once again illuminate the stage I can see Wayne stepping into this giant clear plastic blob. We quickly get the picture and the plastic blob turns into a giant clear bubble with a person inside. As soon as the first notes of ‘Space Oddity’ chime in, all of us beneath the marquee become part of a single frozen moment in time for the boy with bright blue jeans. Rolling with the sax solo and Major Tom’s misfortune across our heads into the centre of the crowd, the man in the bubble and the band playing beneath the galaxy of lights on stage fill the air of Galway city with Bowie.
It may have been a nod to to the explosive ending which would in about 30 minutes singe the eyebrows of the first 6 rows. Nevertheless, we are ignorant of any inside jokes.
Taking all Lips into account from 1983 up to present day, I have a soft spot for their early 90s odyssey of guitar laden post punk and baggy jumper melodies. As I recognise the next song I turn to the man beside me and yell with sweat stained lip into his ear “THIS IS MY FAVOURITE TUNE”. We enter ‘She Don’t Use Jelly‘ (from Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, 1993) and this is probably the loudest we’ve been for the whole gig. Jumping up and down and punching the air – whacking that guy in the face with the camera tied to my wrist which I forget to apologise for later – I’m in my happy place.
At this stage the energy around us is electric. It might be the adrenaline, the endorphins, actual happiness, or the full body experience of music and dance, but it feels natural. We’re drawn into the supernatural, extra-natural moment. This builds with ‘Are you a Hypnotist??’ (from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, 2002), a song which to me feels like the album’s peak mystery, as the unknown whereabouts of our hero Yoshimi take centre stage.
Still frozen in time under the marquee, with the constant bouncing of giant balloons and confetti rain, we cheer to deafening levels. Giant eyes are standing on the stage and as the giant red lips are lifted the band breaks into the deep electric chords of ‘The W.A.N.D.’ (from At War with the Mystics, 2006) and in chaotic unison we become a wave of bouncing heads and flailing arms. This is my favourite moment from the gig. The maximum energy you can expel while causing minimum damage to the people beside you, combined with sheer madness and shot through your body so that you genuinely couldn’t stop moving even if you tried.
Things take a slower turn, and we’re told that this is a very sad song. But by no means do they want us to feel sad – rather they would prefer if we maintained this deafening roar.
“You’re too loud” – Wayne Coyne.
And it is sad. The lights filter in and out of coloured shades behind the band and we see silhouettes with the music. But we also cheer like hell.
We’re coming close to the end. The reported “supernova incident” will in a few moments tear across the stage and absorb the band into bright lights and leave nothing behind. Unaware, and blissfully so, we listen as a heartfelt thank you is shared from the band.
This is the point where the end of the journey, the odyssey, or whatever it is comes into sight. I remember standing in roughly the exact same spot under the Big Top when Spiritualized and Primal Scream performed at the Arts Festival, and it’s still my favourite gig ever. Nine year later this feels like a proper salute to the continuum of outstanding musical experiences, to watch and to listen to a band that played a huge part in my formative years.
We reach the end (nearly) with ‘All You Need is Love (from The Terror, 2013)
Now, this is where things get weird. As the rainbow arch is inflated on the stage and the encore – the righteous celebration of death and the swelling climax of 2002 Yoshimi, ‘Do You Realise?’ – raises our voices and arms into the air, the Lips bringing us out of this world, the lights ficker. As we near the finale things get weirder. The fainter blinking lights are brighter, the cannons fire insane volumes of confetti into the air and streamers fall onto our faces. My lips have bits of metallic confetti on them and anything even remotely sweaty attracts more droplets of colour.
In swirls and smoke, the lights grow brighter. We could not be louder if we squeezed our voice boxes like the last bit of toothpaste from the tube. I take out my camera. And then it happens. There’s a bang, a supernova and blinding light.
If you ask anyone about the incident, they’ll say it was all over in a flash. All that remained of the gig were millions of pieces of confetti, burst balloons, sheets of silver foil, a rainbow, memories of a unicorn and five people on stage who likely know the secrets of the cosmos. The investigation into the incident continues, and The Flaming Lips remain wanted suspects in the case of several dozen singed eyebrows.