It began in the usual way: some commotion on stage, murmurs in the crowd, a shaggy-haired man in a shimmering suit advancing from stage left. He’s fiddling with things on the ground and on his suit, and when he emerges to center stage, he looks up, smiles at the gathering crowd, raises his fist and then goes back to his fiddling. His bandmates, shadows, take their places behind guitars and keyboards and drum kits.
Back stage right, figures in black, toting violins, violas, brass and wood instruments file in seats behind the band set up. Afterwards, a choir begins to occupy risers behind the orchestra and the lineup is complete: The Flaming Lips, the Colorado Symphony and the Colorado Choir, some 75 players in all, jammed onto the stage at Red Rocks, ready to play through the Flaming Lips’ 1999 release, The Soft Bulletin.
The man in the shimmering suit climbs to the top of tall and narrow pedestal at center stage where he is helped into a suit that casts waves of light over and across the entire stage. A crown of white light rests on his shoulders. He looks like a sixteenth-century emperor, standing before his minions.
The Soft Bulletin, arguably the best Flaming Lips album, is both a profoundly sad and joyful album.
Both emotions sit so tightly together throughout the course of the album that it’s oftentimes difficult to distinguish one from the other. The album loosely chronicles the death of the father of Flaming Lips front man, Wayne Coyne. Along the way, it celebrates scientific research, friendship and bugs, contemplates the end of the world, wonders about unseen powers and mixes the quotidian with the transcendent. Throughout, the album ponders some of the deepest questions we can ask ourselves: Why are we here? How do we make meaning in our lives? What do we do with sadness and despair? How do we find joy in the midst of sorrow?
Over the top of the thematic concerns are musical moments that range from a solitary voice accompanied by an acoustic guitar to mesmerizing, sonic detonations that sound like an organized musical earthquake.
If that all sounds to you like questions associated with sacred spaces or places of learning rather than a rock and roll album, then you have hit on the the curiosity and the power of The Soft Bulletin. It’s a secular humanist’s guide to living that matches the beauty and wisdom of Thoreau, Joyce, Stevens and Hemingway.
My sister-in-law flew in from NYC to see the show. This was her first Flaming Lips concert. Toward the end, Wayne Coyne, accompanied by a detail of security guards marched up through the center of the crowd–he walked right by us–and got inside his signature ‘space ball’ where he proceeded to sing “Space Oddity.” Here’s a photo of Sapana with the ‘space ball directly behind her:
There were a few moments during the show last night when there was nothing I could do except close my eyes and it felt like was was feeling the music first and listening to it second. This was especially the case as the band/orchestra/choir moved toward the end of the album and made its way through “Gash” and “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate.” The combination of the weighty, monophonic synthesizers against the polyphonic choir, the pedaling bass, the strings moving from dissonance to melodic lines, the crashing timpani, the booming bass drums and the screeching brass instruments . . . ah, you had to be there, and I hope you were.