Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Great Electrodelic Get-Together

On Thursday the 24th I went to the Flaming Lips show at the State Fair, and I'd like to recount the event for Marc and Sadie's sake:

I drove to the fairgrounds. (My parents were on vacation. They said I could borrow their car. Honest!) The sky had been darkening since I left Uptown. After I parked and started walking, I saw a nightmarishly dark sky creeping up on the Fair from the north. I began to think the concert might be cancelled. When I got to the entrance, a monsoon hit. I had to struggle against the wind and horizontal rain. People were being blown past me as they fled the grounds. A teenage girl under a small tent was selling tickets. She let me in free after advising me not to even bother with the Fair.

I forged ahead in my rain jacket (which is more of a glorified windbreaker), until I realized that I had to find shelter. I wasn't worried about a tornado, I just didn't wanna get any wetter. I chose a rustic-looking log building. It turned out to be a store/museum devoted to Minnesota's pioneer days. There were some women inside in period dress. One was kind enough to let me use their private bathroom. Just the kind of generosity you'd expect from people pretending to be pioneers.

The rain let up after about 20 minutes, whereupon I wandered over to the Food Building (they should really try classin' up that name) and got a Veggie Pie, which I'd seen listed on the State Fair website's list of food. It was an assortment of raw vegetables stuck to a shingle of dense, indeterminate bread with an unidentified cream dressing serving as glue. It was OK, but certainly not the work of vegetarian gourmets.

After I finished that, with help from a bottle of water, I ran into Dan, my best friend from high school. I didn't recognize him until he was within a few feet. He was unusually buoyant. His sister was with him. She didn't seem to remember me. He asked what I was up to. I told him and then forgot to ask him the same. Dan then bid me adieu and got in line with his sister for one of the building's many gastronomic (Thank you, The Oxford Thesaurus: American Edition!) delights. I'm not sure if the pause between the end of my answer and the beginning of his signoff was long enough to justify one of his famous grudges. It seemed like he cut the conversation short. He could've just filled me in on his life without my prompting, at least to the shallow degree I shared my situation with him.

After the encounter with Dan, I walked around and eventually found the Grandstand, but I didn't go in right away since it wasn't even 7:30, the scheduled start time for the show. So I meandered around a few more minutes before my self-consciousness and boredom drove me back to the Grandstand. I followed the line up the stairs and found a crowd already congregating in front of the stage. But the crowd was pretty widely dispersed; we Midwesterners like our personal space. I found a random spot on the black pavement and occupied it. There were numbers on the ground to indicate chair placement when they set up chairs for other shows. I kinda felt like a chair.

Usually in this situation I would've felt extremely self-conscious, but I was relaxed. And bored. In between people-watching, I went to the bathroom twice and stood by the entrance to see if I could find any familiar faces (and also to look like I was expecting someone). I could've eaten at one of the booths on either side of the stage, but I wasn't in the mood to gorge myself. Something about pigging out alone in public seems really sad.

A man onstage told us the first band, the Magic Numbers, had their equipment drenched in the deluge and wouldn't be performing. The crowd reacted with disappointment mixed with cheers for Sonic Youth, who he said would go on at 8:20. This required more waiting. But finally the sun slipped below the horizon and Sonic Youth came out. (Coincidence?!) A lotta people were into Sonic Youth, but there was no moshing or dancing, except from Kim Gordon (the lead singer), who bounced around in her china doll dress like a teenager numbly trying to escape some secret pain.

I started wishing ardently that I'd brought some friends along at this point, because I came up with some great jokes. When Sonic Youth came out, I thought they should've asked the audience, "Are you ready for cool detachment?" When Thurston Moore (the lead guitarist) mentioned eating at Mickey's Diner and his intention to eat something on a stick at the Fair, I wanted to say, "He's connecting with us!" And then when they settled into another moderately-paced semi-rocker, I wanted to shout, "Whoo! Mid-tempo!" I thought of sharing these with the strangers around me, but I didn't have the guts. Thank god I remembered my witticisms so they weren't lost forever.

Sonic Youth was OK, but the songs all sounded the same to me and they weren't dramatic at all. It was a strangely sluggish warmup for the Flaming Lips. When SY was done, I made my move toward the stage, letting the two guys ahead of me blaze my trail. The crowd was in a state of flux because of the SY fans either heading out or just going to the bathrooms or the food booths. I only got within 100 feet of the stage. In front of me was a solid wall of humanity. To get any closer I would've had to endure the displeasure (either silent or spoken) of my fellow attendees, and I wasn't willing to do that, not even for the Flaming Lips. Besides, it would've been rude.

I think it took an hour for the Lips to set up. The main problem was the huge projection screen that was still wet from the rain and vulnerable to the wind. There were four cannons, multicolored boxes on wheels with megaphones sticking out the top. They looked like relics from Dr. Seuss's personal battery. The drum kit, an orange keyboard, the amps and the mic's were set up in front of the screen. A tiny camera was mounted on Wayne's mic, allowing us to see a huge closeup of his head on the screen. The crowd cheered the first few times Wayne appeared onstage. As the setup dragged on, though, the sight of him became less thrilling. Michael and Steven didn't arouse the same enthusiasm.

Just before the music began, Wayne surfed the audience in his clear plastic bubble like a hamster. He almost got to me, but then headed back to the stage. Inside the sphere he had trouble keeping his balance and fell down often. It was cool to see my hero looking like a victim of America's Funniest Home Videos while literally putting himself in the hands of hundreds of strangers. It showed he had at least some belief in his songs' message of hope in humanity.

I tried to guess which song they'd open with. I thought "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song... (With All Your Power)" was most probable, although starting your concert with the first song off your most recent album is not the most imaginative choice. I was hoping they'd open with "Race for the Prize," but when they actually did, I was rapturously surprised. The crowd burst into a blissful bounce and the electrodelic revival kicked off with a cannon-shot of confetti, a blast from Wayne's streamer gun and a hyperkinetic video montage. The famous costumed contingent consisted of a squadron of Santa's on the right side of the stage and on the left was a gaggle of girls disguised as sexy aliens from the Jetsons era.

The second song was "Free Radicals (A Hallucination Of The Christmas Skeleton Pleading With A Suicide Bomber)," a heavy, Prince-like funk plea for sanity. The intensity of the song makes it ideal for live shows. The screen showed an apparently Japanese game show in which women stuck their heads through holes in a platform across which lizards were walking. The appeal of the show lay in watching the women's disembodied heads scream as the lizards approached them. The Japanese sure know how to live.

Unfortunately, the Lips then stepped aside so the Magic Numbers could play an abbreviated set. After the protracted delay and performance of only two songs, this interruption was aggravating, but the Numbers only played two songs, so the interlude was mercifully short. The Numbers were decent. They had sweet voices. The lead singer was a tubby guy with long black hair and an acoustic guitar. Two women sang along, a chunky girl with a tambourine and the other empty-handed.

When the Lips returned, they delighted the audience with "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 1," followed by an a capella sing-along reprise led by Wayne and assisted by his nun hand puppet. The Yoshimi album cycle continued with "Yoshimi... pt. 2," which was energizing. "Vein of Stars" came next, a nice, mellow break to gaze overhead at the low, grey clouds scudding across the sky and watch the stars drift by in the screen's cosmic scene. It was basically just a "warp" screensaver with a fancy red nebula in the background, but its languid feel and endurance through the entire song accented the music beautifully.

Then the highlight of the evening: "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song." Wayne explained what he wanted us to sing before they began. He said we'd have to violate our personal beliefs by agreeing ("Yeah yeah yeah yeah...") with the selfish, greedy lyrics. He started with a dry run of the first line: "If you could blow up the world with the flick of a switch, would ja do it?" Sixteen "yeah"'s exploded from the crowd in pummeling succession. Wayne was clearly impressed. Then the song began in earnest, the laity providing the "yeah"'s and accompanied by a prerecorded black'n'white closeup of Wayne's face singing along to a series of words in different languages, which I assumed all meant "yeah" (or "yes"). The video, the audience's incredible energy in singing the "yeah"'s (and some of the "aaah"'s) and the band's funneling of this invincible electricity combined to lift the show to a new, astral plane of existence, for which we had previously only produced a close simulacrum.

Alas, the following songs could not maintain this ethereal altitude, but they delighted nonetheless. "The W.A.N.D. (The Will Always Negates Defeat)" rocked like the cosmic protest song it is, featuring Wayne on megaphone. "
My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion (The Inner Life As Blazing Shield Of Defiance And Optimism As Celestial Spear Of Action)" had an endearingly simple cartoon (from the '70s?) about the life cycle of the frog with the song's lyrics superimposed. "She Don't Use Jelly" reignited the congregation, and "Do You Realize??" burned the house down with flames of bittersweet, majestic love.

The devotees' deafening din slowly swelled after the Lips left the stage and then broke on a magnificently rocky coast of euphoria when they returned for the encore. Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" kept the crowd at fever pitch as a battering montage of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their war machine (with a Colin Powell cameo) provided the backdrop.

After this kind of life-changing, revelatory experience, you'd expect people to stick around for a while afterward to let the mindblowingness sink in. But everyone marched resolutely to the exits as soon as it was over. Many of them had to rush to catch the last buses out at midnight. My pace was determined as I tramped through the mostly dark and deserted fairgrounds with an escort of happy, wired coreligionists. Despite our shared devotion to the Lips, I didn't sense a great esprit de corps in the cool, fall-foreshadowing midnight air. We just boarded our buses and hopped in our cars in apparent resignation (or eagerness) to the return of normalcy.

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