After a few years when their circusy, hamster-ball-enhanced shows felt uncommonly rote, the Flaming Lips managed to pull off another excitingly unique concert at First Avenue on Sunday night, only two months behind their last fulfilling freak show there. Frontman Wayne Coyne told the audience at the July gig that the band liked playing First Avenue so much – “one of the first places that let us come play” – they wanted to come back and play two more shows this year.
Fresh off playing RiotFest in Chicago a day earlier, Coyne started out Sunday’s performance rightfully bragging about keeping his word: “I threw it out there,” he told the near-sell-out crowd, “then this date came up, and we thought, ‘Well, what are we gonna do?’” The answer was something that the legendary Oklahoma acid punks haven’t done in at least 20 years, if ever: Play their entire 1993 record “Transmissions from the Satellite Heart” from start to finish.
“We haven't played much material from this album in a long time,” Coyne explained, admitting the reason: It’s hard to recreate the wonderfully off-kilter guitar work of Ronald Jones, who quit the band in 1996 but helps define their sound to this day. “We always felt like we couldn't do his thing justice,” Coyne added. “Now, we're gonna try.”
For the most part, justice was served. The first Flaming Lips record to offer a little cohesion and teeter toward conventional songwriting – if you can call “She Don’t Use Jelly” conventional – it rolled along joyously Sunday. After a pleasant-enough revival of the jangly opening track “Turn It On,” the show turned manic as the fuzz-blast guitars and booming drums of “Pilot Can at the Queer of God” kicked in alongside the smoke machines and confetti blowers. They followed that little bout of mayhem with a surprisingly spot-on rendition of the more dreamy and melodic gem “Oh My Pregnant Head.”
Before “She Don’t Use Jelly” – the one song off the record they still play ever show – Coyne told a great story about how they first realized it had hit unlikely hit potential back in 1994, when they first started playing it on a tour opening for Pearl Jam knockoff band Candlebox.
“Even though their audience hated the very sight of us, they loved this song,” he remembered.
The second half of the show, with the deeper cuts, was even more rewarding than the first. Steven Drozd (the drummer in 1994) and new-ish member Derek Brown nailed the blazing, triumphal guitar work in the extended outro of “Moth in the Incubator,” and diehard fans delighted singing along to “Plastic Jesus” (actually titled “*******” on the record sleeve). The one exception was “Be My Head,” which Coyne openly admitted was the one song they couldn’t pull off right without Jones, and thus they slowed it down but still never quite made sense of it. At least he was honest about it.
Coyne & Co. came back to play a four-song encore after the “Transmissions” set, one that included the must-play hit “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1” and the must-do hamster-ball roll (during “Vein of Stars”). They once again ended with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” foreshadowing the Oct. 28 release of their all-star remake of the entire “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Not forgetting his mention in July of making it a three-show run, Coyne hinted at (but didn’t promise) yet another First Ave gig this winter. “We’re gonna try to come back on the coldest day of the year,” he said.
Sunday’s concert also included another rare treat: The live debut of Electric Würms, a side-project sort of band led by Lips guitarist Drozd with another crew of musicians, plus Coyne on alternating instruments and occasional vocals. Drozd himself changed up his role several times, even returning behind the drum kit for a few songs. The Lips fans ate it up, and not just the handful of wigged-out psychedelic tunes that could’ve passed for Flaming Lips outtakes. In fact, the band was at its best when it veered toward groove-heavy, repetitious tunes that edged on kraut-rock.