By Michael Lello
Photos by Jason Riedmiller
PHILADELPHIA – Good psychedelic rock, by its very definition, defies definition. The sonic equivalent of a hallucinogenic drug experience, the most efficient and honest way to describe a successful concert from a band working in the genre is the clichéd, and somewhat snooty, “You had to be there.”
You had to be there Thursday night at Penns Landing’s Festival Pier to truly appreciate – “
understand” is not exactly the proper word – The Flaming Lips’ performance.
The Flaming Lips’ music is not complicated. It is more about setting moods, piling layers and swirling sounds than verse-chorus-verse structures and instrumental flash – although the talent to use those traditional techniques is present and sometimes engaged.
The ringmaster of the multimedia circus is Wayne Coyne, the Lips’ frontman and public persona. Like a wise friend comforting you during a particularly scary acid trip, Coyne used an inviting and loving personality throughout the set, preaching love and peace, warning the crowd of a particularly sad song and exhorting the audience repeatedly, sometimes midsong: “C’mon, c’mon!”
Smoke and ominous sounds and a Spanish introduction greeted the Oklahoma City band, which opened with the Devo cover “Gates of Steel.” Coyne, standing atop a raised mound of flashing cables and cradling a baby doll, sang and gesticulated, seeming to conduct the music, over jagged Steven Drozd guitar figures and Kliph Scurlock’s choppy drums. Coyne clutched and kissed the doll, before crushing synthesizers and effects ushered in “Look . . . The Sun Is Rising,” from the band’s 2013 album “The Terror.” A big chord shift and Coyne’s “ohs” melted into the first verse, with Coyne singing that love is always something you should fear. Drozd’s repetitive, stabbing guitar and disorienting effects ramped up as the song neared its end.
“The Terror’s” title track was a soothing comedown of mellow synths. “We are standing alone,” Coyne sang, standing atop his platform and gesturing along with a chiming bell. The song ended with a blast of confetti into the crowd.
The familiar “The W.A.N.D.” – used in a Dell computer commercial a few years back — was an upbeat and danceable, clap-along. Coyne spewed smoke from a toy trumpet in ritualistic fashion before Drozd tore into the signature riff. Afterward, Coyne pointed out the nearby Ben Franklin Bridge, expressing concern that a driver, befuddled by the music, might drive off it. “If I see a car go off the bridge, I’m going to stop the show and go rescue them,” he said.
“Race For The Prize,” from 1999’s fan-favorite album “The Soft Bulletin,” followed, with Coyne saying “we’re going to sing a song, but it’s a sad song, but we want to make this a big party and show the world we won’t be defeated.” Over harp sounds and swooning, schmaltzy strings, Coyne sang about two scientists sacrificing their lives. He again cradled and kissed the baby and swung a flashlight like a lasso.
The simple “Try To Explain” preceded another deep-space “The Terror” track, “Butterfly, How Long It Takes To Die.” Like much of “The Terror,” the song is for the most part synth atmospheres and vocals, but with Coyne’s personality and the stage production – one of the most involved array of lights and effects deployed by a touring act not on the U2/Coldplay level of success – makes these types of songs work in the Lips’ set. “Turning Violent,” also from “The Terror,” and the airy and pretty then heavier and expansive “A Spoonful Weighs A Ton,” from “The Soft Bulletin” closed the set.
As the set came to an end, the word “LOVE” flashed on the screen behind the band as the word repeated in a loop. Scurlock pumped his arms in time and the band left the stage.
The encore, just one song, was “Do You Realize?,” one of the band’s most well-known songs. While it was a predictable choice, it did not disappoint, with Coyne still singing with passion and the crowd joining in on the dreamy “ohs.”
With Tame Impala and The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger on the bill, the show had a mini-festival feel. Unfortunately, only one of the opening acts delivered a memorable performance: The GOASTT, the band led by Sean Lennon and his model girlfriend Charlotte Kemp Muhl.
The GOASTT was a revelation of dark, heavy and brooding rock, with Lennon unleashing almost heavy metal guitar solos. Lennon kept the banter to a minimum, noting before the seventh song of their set, “I know we have a curfew tonight”; the band was given a too-short 30-minute slot, as opposed to Tame Impala’s one hour and 15 minutes, but TGOASTT made the most of it. Lennon then introduced a reworked Syd Barrett cover – appropriate, considering The Flaming Lips are a direct descendent of the Pink Floyd casualty.
Bearing little resemblance to their precious folky debut “Acoustic Sessions” and 2011’s Belle and Sebastian-esque “La Carotte Bleue,” the GOASTT’s set was dark, dangerous and thrilling, with Lennon’s nasally voice – it’s impossible not to compare it to his father John’s similar vocals – blending nicely with Kemp Muhl’s pretty intonations. The band’s upcoming album is certainly one to keep an ear out for.
Australia indie synth pop buzz band Tame Impala played a technically proficient yet personality-devoid set, but the audience, for the most part, did not seem to mind, reacting with glee especially to the hit “Elephant.” The band is really good at what it does – taut rhythms and flawless instrumentality – but discerning any emotion or narrative arc from their songs was challenging.