Beck with the Flaming Lips
Bridges Auditorium | Claremont, CA | 10.14.02
On Monday, October 14th we went to the unofficial commencement of the Beck tour with the Flaming Lips as an opener and back-up band. This was a special "warm-up" performance that had been announced only days before.
The majestic Bridges Auditorium on the campus of Claremont College was a beautiful venue selection. In addition to having enormous zodiac figures outlined on the ceiling, plush seats and great acoustics, it also boasts a classic collection of antique pianos and organs downstairs.
This was one of those rare shows where we really didn't know what to expect due to the exotic blending of Beck and the Flaming Lips, a band which we were unfamiliar with. The two diverse musical forces ended up merging gracefully like shades of red and blue. Unfortunately though, our first encounter with the Lips was tainted by the antics of their leader, Wayne Coyne. From the beginning of this concert until the end, he continually put himself in a position that, in our opinion, diverted energy away from Beck. What began as a simple fist-pumping effort to get the crowd riled up became a signature move for a guy who couldn't resist eliciting a cheer from his approving fans.
As the Flaming Lips set up for their opening set, they played an extended interview segment on the screen featuring Wayne interviewing Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. We couldn't figure quite how to interpret the content and selection of this piece under the circumstances. Wayne kept asking questions putting Wilson in the position to sound very self-glorifying. It was bizarre. Then the real bizarrities truly commenced. Even though we had never heard them before and their genre isn't necessarily our favorite kind of music, the Flaming Lips are clearly very talented. Their song arrangements were fresh and original, creating interesting moods and textures. However, the potential effectiveness of their sound was totally undermined by practically every other element of their show.
For starters, throughout their entire set they had a whole fleet of fans wearing stuffed animal costumes on both sides of the stage waving high-powered flashlights. Doing this for a song or two would have been fun but continuing it for the duration of the set only took away from their music. (The huge "demonic" bunny was particularly distracting.) Secondly, they projected disturbing and offensive images on their screen during each song. I'm sure many of the new MTV generation were grooving on the girl floating in a tub full of egg yolks, the young Japanese girl murdering a bunch of women with a machine gun, and the various distorted fetuses, but we weren't too amused. The worst thing of all was the smoke/fireworks/stinkbombs the band set off which filled the unventilated hall with a noxious stench that lingered for the next hour. It was totally atrocious and unnecessary. The disclaimer of this show being a "dress rehearsal" was repeated several times so there is hope for some adjustments. The lone bright point of their visual display, from our point of view, was the four spinning disco balls cleverly positioned in the middle of the stage.
At this point we were very frustrated and in bad need of some Beck-lovin'. After much too long of a set break, we finally got what we came for. The evening's hero came out in his typically understated garb and sat down at the front of the stage to play solo acoustic. It was so wonderful hearing pure, unadulterated Beck as his lush voice neutralized all of the bad taste left from the Lips. His third song was the first offering off of Sea Change, "Guess I'm Doing Fine." He followed it with "The Golden Age," sending chills up our spines. The pain of the Flaming Lips experience was almost gone when, through the translucent curtain, Wayne began to do his "trademark move," disrupting the perfection that was gloriously unfolding.
Around this point, halfway through "The Golden Age," the Flaming Lips began their role as Beck's backup band. They sounded great from the get-go as weeks of rehearsals had clearly paid off. Beck is such a musical genius that it seems impossible for any of his visions not to come to fruition. He could have chosen so many different people, yet he followed some sort of intuition and made the Flaming Lips one of the luckiest groups on Earth.
The Lips backed up their privileged selection with some solid musicianship. Guitarist Steven Drozd was impeccable in his subtleties, complementing Beck's acoustic sound with just the right tones. Bassist Michael Ivins provided a deep, ever-present bottom-end along with a drummer who was absolutely on fire. The main keyboard player was excellent. He was constantly filling space with avant-garde synth grooves. Beck and someone else on stage were often playing other keyboards as well, which provided for a rich mix.
Apart from the two songs where blinding lights were shined directly at the audience, the light show and screen projections during Beck's set were very soothing and went along perfectly with the material. One effect that filled the whole backdrop with blue stars was particularly cool. Beck's newly released masterpiece, Sea Change, comprised the bulk of the concert's material. It was impressive to witness the powerful emotional qualities of the album captured live. Hearing "Paper Tiger" was absolutely delectable, as the band navigated a steamy jungle haunted by Beck's hopeful hopelessness. The peak perhaps was the epic "Lonesome Tears." The projections took the viewer through a landscape of thorn bushes, Zen-like geological creations and sand. Beck was resonating such a calm feeling amidst this climax, reflecting that perhaps it is the ultimate therapy for him to be onstage, releasing the sadness that helped birth these songs.
Aside from playing most of Sea Change, Beck did a good job sprinkling in a good bit of his other material. We were thrilled to hear a couple choice cuts off of Midnight Vultures, including the industrial electronica of "Get Real Paid." Beck was milking it with his robot dance and the Flaming Lips were flaunting their adaptability. The band also played one off of Mutations and a couple other older tunes that we weren't familiar with. The songs were sequenced in an approach that thrived on ups and downs. It will be interesting to see how the material evolves over the course of the tour.
This show, which seemed to go on forever, ended after a double-encore around midnight. We were disappointed that the last person off the stage each time was Wayne Coyne, not Beck. He continued to do his "signature move" and we continued to grimace. Coyne even went so far as to shine a spotlight behind Beck during one of his more somber solo songs. Seriously, if Beck or someone doesn't talk to this guy soon, his ego may continue to distract the audience from the performer they really came for. It would be a real shame to let anyone or anything taint the beauty and raw emotion of the Sea Change Tour.
Tyler Blue with Ravena Blumara
JamBase | California
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