By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – The average Flaming Lips concert already feels like the greatest party on earth. Spending New Year’s Eve with the band in their hometown felt like living inside a kaleidoscope.
For nearly three hours, the Lips said goodbye to 2009 and hello to 2010 with a 90-minute main set and a rare performance of Pink Floyd’s classic album “Dark Side of the Moon.” For that feat, the band had assistance from Stardeath and White Dwarfs, the opening act, fronted by lead Lip Wayne Coyne’s nephew, Dennis Coyne.
The Lips/Stardeath version of “Dark Side” is less an homage than a deconstruction. If Floyd’s vision was a Cecil B. DeMille epic of careful, layered arrangements, then the Lips’ plays like one of Steven Soderbergh’s handi-cam experimental films, loving thrown together on a low budget, more intent on capturing the spirit than articulating the original performance.
“Breathe” was stripped of its shimmering guitars and lush harmonies and given the same blocky textures and blunt rhythms and bass lines that fuel much of the Lips’ new album, “Embryonic.” Similarly, “On the Run” was no longer a pattern of tape loops and manipulations, but fuzzed-out orgy of noise.
“Dark Side”’s most well-known number was also the least recognizable. The minimalist take of “Money” reduced the song to its signature bass line, with electronically manipulated vocals.
There were several nods to Pink Floyd in the Lips’ original material. “Vein of Stars” foreshadowed the straightforward reading of “Us and Them,” right down to the piano part and laser effects. “Pompeii am Götterdämmerung” sounded like something the Syd Barrett era of the Floyd would have pounded out in the late-‘60s London underground.
The spirit of Floyd was also evident in the material from “Embryonic.” Its songs are a little more abstract and less focused than anything the band has delivered in more than a decade. Although it was a bit jarring to shift from the ultra-catchy fan-favorites to the new material, it was nice to hear the band spazz out.
With its perpetual thump of bass and guitar, “Sea of Leaves” felt like being run over by an 18-wheeler. Wayne Coyne delivered the last half of “Silver Trembling Hands” from the shoulders of a person in a gorilla suit, a bizarre vision for a bizarre song.
The poppier moments of the first set drew the biggest response. The crowd threw a lot of force into “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” and the air was charged when the house lights came up and everyone joined in on the chorus (“with all your power”). The slower arrangement of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Part 0ne)” felt like a giant campfire. “She Don’t Use Jelly” was a reliable feel-good moment.
Although the arena was two-thirds full and loaded with energetic fans, the band seemed to have trouble filling the void. It was unusual and unexpected, because I’ve twice seen them rock a vast field at the Wakarusa Music Festival. Maybe it was the abundance of slower, spacier songs and unfamiliar new material, but the Cox Arena – which resembles a slightly larger, late-‘60s edition of Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium – felt spacious.
Whatever the reason, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Most bands tarp off the unseated sections behind the stage. The Lips filled them with balloons. As fans filed in, hundreds of the brightly colored latex orbs waited to be bumped, thrown and ultimately popped when the appointed moment arrived.
As the Lips floated into a poignant, sing-along reading of “Do You Realize??,” the balloons slowly started cascading from the balcony to the floor. When the song ended, it was nearly midnight and the house lights came up. As the crowd counted down, the band vamped and balloons filled the coliseum, obscuring the stage. Somewhere in the melee a wedding proposal was accepted.
While the music blared and balloons bounced, the stage crew had the thankless job of clearing debris from the stage for the second act. A flurry of confetti fell again over the crowd as one of the stage hands used a leaf blower to clear the area.
Despite the crew’s efforts it was a tedious 40 minutes of sound checking and testing before the Floyd set took flight. Once-giddy fans now laid or sat down in the back of the floor and yawns abounded. When the heartbeat that signaled the start of “Breathe” finally started, the crowd responded with a cheer of both anticipation and appreciation.
Material aside, the second set was markedly different from the first. After the powerful downbeat and swirling intro to opening number “Race for the Stars” the arena was awash in balloons, confetti and streamers. As the audience danced, Coyne grabbed a fistful of streamer and started twirling around like a cross between a color guard and Roger Daltrey.
But that was hours ago. The joviality and props disappeared when the band ventured into the “Dark Side.” In their place was a hovel of nearly a dozen musicians, surrounded by fog, hunched over their instruments. Although Coyne still danced, striking a cymbal with his maraca in the center of the stage, it was obvious this was Serious Music.
Coyne may have been the ringmaster, but “Dark Side” was clearly guitarist/keyboard player Steven Drozd’s show. He served as conductor, signaling the changes and conducting the performers. During “Great Gig in the Sky,” he sang the wordless melody into a megaphone, creating the musical equivalent of an epileptic seizure.
Nepotism aside, Stardeath were a great enlistment for the feat. The majority of the songs in their 45-minute opening set had a druggy, progressive bent straight out of the early ‘70s. The band showed their hand early by opening with a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf.” Uncle Wayne showed his approval rocking out from the wings of the stage.
Stardeath’s centerpiece was “The Birth,” a side-long proggy throwback complete with Theremin solo and lengthy bass/drums breakdown. The set ended with an imaginative cover of Madonna’s “Borderline.”
As the final pulse of “Eclipse” beat out, a last blast of confetti showered the crowd. The New Year was only 90 minutes old, but had already logged its first great rock moment.
Race for the Prize, Silver Trembling Hands, The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song, Vein of Stars, In The Morning of the Magicians, Convinced of the Hex, Evil, See the Leaves, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pompeii, The W.A.N.D., She Don’t Use Jelly, Do You Realize?? New Year’s countdown and intermission. Dark Side of the Moon (with Stardeath and White Dwarfs): Speak To Me, Breathe, On the Run, Time, The Great Gig in the Sky, Money, Us and Them, Any Colour You Like, Brain Damage, Eclipse.