It’s now been over two weeks since I saw the Flaming Lips and over two hours since I opened the blank text file and pasted in the list of upcoming concerts. It’s not that I don’t want to write this – it was a really fun show that I feel like talking about – I just don’t want to put in the effort, you know?
Really, this is not dissimilar to how I felt on the morning of the concert. I was excited when the show was announced – I love it when a band comes to town (or at least a semi-nearby town) and I never thought they’d play here. But when I was supposed to pack up and head out, I had to fight the little voice telling me “you know, we could just… not do this.” I mean, Saskatoon’s far, the weather wasn’t looking great, I didn’t know the opener, and I’m really not even super familiar with the Flaming Lips if we’re being honest. But! I persevered, for you. Mostly for me. But a little bit for you.
So let’s talk about what I do know about the Flaming Lips, or what I think I know. I first became aware of them through the song She Don’t Use Jelly, which I had on an MTV Buzz Bin CD that came out in 1997. To stoke your 90s nostalgia and give you a frame of reference, some of the other artists on that CD were Counting Crows, The Cardigans, and Primitive Radio Gods. (The song by Primitive Radio Gods is called Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in my Hand. And it IS on iTunes.)
If She Don’t Use Jelly sounds like a novelty song, that’s because it is, and I assumed these folks were doomed to one-hit wonder status. But over time, I started hearing that they were still making records and they were really good and not what you’d expect for a joke band. And then they weren’t a joke band, they were indie hipster darlings and everyone had their album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Wikipedia says that’s their tenth album and that was in 2002 and okay they put out way more music than I ever knew about. Maybe don’t look to me for the history lesson.
The drive up to Saskatoon was uneventful. A little rain but nothing serious – that was saved for when I got there. I got to Josy’s house mid-afternoon and within 10 minutes, the skies opened up. Massive downpour and lightning with the loudest, most immediate thunder. Something got hit and it was right near us. The power went out, probably not unrelated. I was starting to doubt whether this outdoor concert was going to be happening. A storm that big won’t last, but what condition would the grounds be in? I had further doubts when the storm passed and Josy and I went in search of food. We went down 8th Street and hit several patches where there was so much water left on the road that only one lane was usable. You’ll be relieved to know we were able to successfully obtain pizza.
Josy: “When did you stop caring about chicken in your concerts?”
me: “Most places I go to for concerts now don’t serve food. I still mention it when I can.”
Josy: “And what did you have on your pizza?”
Josy: “There you go.”
Indeed. Official concert status: conferred.
Pizza then Pokémon then back to Josy’s house and I was off to the show. The rain was long gone and the grounds were fine. I got there with five minutes to spare and without a ticket – I’d realized that morning that I’d never printed one out. Luckily, it’s the future and they can just scan your phone.
Now, if you remember last year’s trip to the SaskTel Saskatchewan Jazz Festival to see Amanda Marshall, you may recall that we brought lawn chairs and wound up sitting way at the back, unable to really see the openers and eventually standing for Marshall. You may also recall that we were lucky to have anywhere at all to park our chairs ‘CUZ THERE’S NO PLACE TO PUT THEM but maybe only Deserée and I remember that. Point being, I was flying solo this year and didn’t want to fight with a chair and so I didn’t bring one. I… needn’t have worried. I walked in mere minutes before the opener was set to start – ran into Carver immediately upon arrival because of course I did – and the place was pretty bare. At this point, if I estimated there was 25% of the crowd that was there for Amanda Marshall, I’d be being generous. I could have set a chair anywhere. Instead I just walked right down to the very front because why not? On stage, the mayor cut a ribbon to open the Jazz Festival and we were underway.
The opener was Wand, from LA. When introduced, they were described as “breaking all barriers” and I don’t know if I’d go that far, though I don’t really know how to describe them. iTunes says “psych-rock” and sure, let’s go for that as long as you promise not to make me define it. There were long instrumental sections. I heard 90s rock influences in there. Some electronic music too. And Crimson & Clover. This was all pretty good in that way that I kind of immediately forgot about. I’m listening to some now, and again, hard to describe, but I’m digging it.
So. Okay. I’d never seen the Flaming Lips before and didn’t really know what to expect. After Wand’s set, stagehands (and singer Wayne Coyne) set up the stage with confetti cannons. Also, while Wand was playing, I could see Coyne walking around backstage with a big rainbow… thing. It later turned out to be wings. Had I known what I was getting myself into, this wouldn’t have been surprising.
The band came out and played the song from 2001: A Space Odyssey or Ric Flair, depending on your personal point of reference. Normally, I would check setlist.fm for reminders of the show, but I know it’s not entirely accurate, so instead I’ll go to the pictures on my phone. One song in and we were blasted with the aforementioned confetti cannons and giant balloons were launched into the crowd. As people threw the balloons around, Coyne left and came back with an eight-foot tall custom-made silver balloon reading FUCK YEAH SASKATOON. He threw it into the crowd who tore it apart like a pack of dogs. Though I did later see people leaving with individual letters they’d managed to save.
The first song I recognized – since I only ever had that one album – was Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1. We had to karate chop along with the song. There was an 18-foot tall inflatable pink robot on stage. Then came the Yeah Yeah Yeah Song where we all had to sing along (“yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah”). I was standing near a security guard and I was very curious as to his opinion of the evening. For the song There Should Be Unicorns, Coyne left again and returned astride a giant unicorn (and wearing the rainbow wings from earlier) (which went well with his suit and eyepatch that I forgot to mention). This did not reduce my curiosity re: the security guard.
Then came the smoke cannons, followed by the spotlights focused on Coyne’s face. Then the stagehands (who, I forgot to mention, were all wearing superhero costumes) started inflating a big ball. The more knowledgeable fans knew what was coming. I did not. Coyne, inside the ball, singing Space Oddity, rolled out off the stage onto the heads and outstretched arms of the crowd.
More smoke from the stage. The security guard looked unimpressed. There was also a sizable amount of smoke coming from the crowd, which should surprise nobody. Guys in giant eyeball costumes came out and danced. More confetti. A little girl behind me, riding her dad’s shoulders, caught one of the giant balloons after trying all night. We all cheered. Coyne wore giant hands that shot lasers into the crowd. Then the band left. A guy behind me in a Teletubby costume hollered for Do You Realize?? The band came back out. Played another song. Played The Star-Spangled Banner, as one does at the end of a rock concert in Canada. Left again. I thought the Teletubby was going to go apoplectic. Band back out. Do You Realize?? under a big inflatable rainbow. Everyone went bonkers. The end.
There was a lot to keep track of. I’m sure I’m missing stuff. I didn’t know all the songs. It certainly wasn’t necessary. You could have gone in blind and this would have been worth it for the spectacle alone. It could be different if you’ve seen it before, but there seemed to be lots of people who’d seen them multiple times and were loving it. Even if you lose the element of surprise (or just aren’t into, like, confetti and big hands), the songs are enough to carry a show on their own.
I went back to Josy’s once the show was done, but a friend from high school was also at the concert. I didn’t see him there but it’s 2018 so we had a nice brief chat via Instagram comments. He went to Amigo’s after the show to see another set by Wand and as they were playing, the Flaming Lips showed up, just looking to hang out. He got a picture with Coyne. I caught my first Alolan Rattata in Pokémon Go on the walk back to the car. So I think we had equally successful evenings.
• Gateway Festival feat. Kathleen Edwards, Steven Page, John K. Samson, Elliott BROOD, more (July 28)
• Arkells (August 2)
• Regina Folk Festival feat. Neko Case, Tanya Tagaq, more (August 11)
• Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls with Bad Cop/Bad Cop and Sam Coffey & The Iron Lungs (September 12)
• The Fred Eaglesmith Show Starring Tif Ginn (September 23)
• Cadence Weapon with Fat Tony and Hua Li (October 2)
• Jonathan Richman (October 6)
• Crash Test Dummies (October 11)
• They Might Be Giants (October 20)
• Hawksley Workman & the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (April 13)
This CD was a ton of fun. It’s fuzzy psychedelic weirdo Pavement-by-way-of-GBV-esque grandiosity, skills masquerading as sloppiness, and it’s creative glory unapologetic to the norm. Speaking of GBV, I heard these guys do Smothered In Hugs on the Sing For Your Meat GBV tribute album and now, hearing more of their stuff, I realize why they were such a good fit.
Of course, it’s also unfair (and lazy) to just compare them to other bands and think that covers it. Their sound is also distinctive, carried largely by Wayne Coyne’s voice. Granted, it sure sounds like the drugs were good while they made this, but that makes it impossible to recreate in the wild, unique. Transmissions… is blissed out sunshine pop music with distortion on the guitars and, occasionally, on reality too.
This punched all of my 90s indie rock happy buttons.