The Flaming Lips - Electric Picnic, Stradbally, Ireland
Saturday September 3rd, 10:20pm. Wayne Coyne is standing to the side of the main stage at Ireland's Electric Picnic festival and watching someone inflate a large plastic bubble with leaf-blower. He addresses the crowd.
"Okay, so here's the deal…what I want you to do, when you go out into the world and people ask you 'How was the show?', tell them that Wayne from the Flaming Lips descended from the Irish sky gently upon the crowd…you don't have to tell them about the leaf-blower."
He knows this is improbable - that people will repeat his opening gambit verbatim to anyone who'll listen - but that's all part of the fun. There's no artifice about the Flaming Lips: they set up their own equipment, invite people onto the stage to dance with them and, at times, seem just as excited as the fans whenever they play live.
There's a huge cheer when he crawls inside the bubble and out into the crowd, rolling around the first few rows and almost sinking before he bobbles back to the stage and gets out, the band launching straight into Race for the Prize. This has been their opener for a good few years now, but it's greeted with an ecstatic fervour as giant balloons float out into the audience, fans in animal suits dance at either side of the stage and Wayne swings a lamp high above his head, throwing glitter around the set and into the crowd.
The Flaming Lips have changed immeasurably in the twenty-odd years since their formation: their early shows were scuzzy, loud and occasionally dangerous, but their sheer enthusiasm always made up for their then rather limited musicianship (bassist Michael Ivins didn't even know how to play when he first joined the band: "I thought four strings would be easier. It wasn't."). They're a far more melodic proposition now, and their last two albums were critically acclaimed, but they've retained that zeal and imagination as a live act and their shows remain unforgettable, even though the current set has changed little in the past two years.
An eccentric version of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody is up next and there's not a single person in the audience who isn't singing along or attempting to dance. This, like all Flaming Lips shows, feels more like a giant party than a gig.
The Lips tend to stick to their best-known songs when they play live because they think these are the ones the fans appreciate the most. The crowd expects – and gets – favourites from 2002's Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots such as Fight Test, Do You Realize? and the album's title track, during which Wayne holds a nun glove puppet up to the microphone and implores the people in the audience to sing along. Which they do.
The only older tracks are Lightning Strikes The Postman (from 1995's Clouds Taste Metallic) – for which Wayne straps a set of strobe lights onto his chest and sings through a loudspeaker – and 1994’s surprise hit She Don't Use Jelly, which is met with shouts of approval.
The show is visually – as well as musically – stunning: balloons and glitter are everywhere, some of the dancing animals shine lights into the crowd and the band is gathered together in a tight space right in the middle of the stage. Wayne is flanked by Michael Ivins and Steven Drozd in headless animal suits and touring drummer Kliph Scurlock pounds away at the back, acting like a fan who's just scored the best gig in the world.
There's a brief cover of Kraftwerk's Radioactivity (they are also playing the festival and are on elsewhere at the same time), during which Wayne apologises for the clash and offers to stop the set should anyone hear the strains of a Kraftwerk song they like. He then plays a tune made up of cow and duck sounds from a Fisher Price electronic toy that someone reportedly threw onstage a few years ago: this is the sort of idiosyncrasy that gives the Flaming Lips their charm.
The show closes with another cover – Black Sabbath's War Pigs, which the band has been playing for some time in ironic tribute to Bush and Blair. It's one of the few songs not everyone knows the words to, but people seems to get the message, which is sarcastic but not overly political.
As the band walk off the stage, most of the crowd shuffles off into the night hoping to catch the end of Kraftwerk's set. Everyone is grinning: it's impossible not to. Even if Wayne Coyne did have to use a leaf-blower.
Photos by Mark Thompson