When the Flaming Lips last played Santa Barbara it was in 2002, and they brought their now famous party to the Arlington — dancing bears, balloons, confetti cannons, and more. Their album at the time was “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” which has gone on to be considered one of their best. Though melancholic underneath, the music bopped along, and so did the band.
When lead singer Wayne Coyne and his cohorts returned to Santa Barbara this last Friday, they did so as headliners on the final show of the Bowl season, and with a locally-created Dia de los Muertos theme to celebrate. But they were also bringing an album considered by critics to be the bleakest of their career: “The Terror.” The resulting concert was disconcerting. How to balance their reputation as one of the best live shows around while pushing ahead with their experimental music? The results were mixed.
But first to the Bowl itself. With the last show falling on Day of the Dead celebrations, the Bowl reached out to local schools and artists to make the concert a bit of an event. People were asked to arrive early if possible. Past the ticket booth and the security pat down, past the scanning machines and the wristbands, the Jerry Garcia Glen was festooned in colorful banners and memorials for the dead, specifically artists who had played the Bowl, everyone from Frank Zappa to Adam Yauch. Volunteers offered face painting in the Muertos style. The Don Riders showed off their customized bikes. Later in the evening Aztec dancers entertained in the beer garden area and a flashmob of young dancers took to the pit between acts to do their thing. It was the kind of night that should be repeated at least once a season, with different themes, showing off local talent. It takes a cool band like the Lips to make it happen.
Opening band Rey Fresco offered up a delicious hybrid of traditional Mexican instruments like a Veracruz harp or a requinto guitar and reggae, funk, and r’n’b. This Ventura-based band has been around for several years, but sounded fresh and fun, and their set did not suffer from the usual opening band audience. The people who checked them out seriously dug them.
Perth, Australia’s Tame Impala played next, and the sun had set just at the right time, with the band using a large screen behind them to provide psychedelic visuals to their retro-stomp sound. With only two albums under their belt — the latest being last year’s “Lonerism,” the band is ascending fast. The music lifts wholeheartedly from pre-Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd — especially this year’s hit “Elephant” — along with plenty of riffs from glam rock and a thrill of repetition taken from Krautrock. Lead singer and head writer Kevin Parker sings in a high register, much like Wayne Coyne, and his lyrics may be garbled and buried like they were on Friday, but it doesn’t matter. The band was tight and nailed complicated stop-start tempo changes, but never lost their way or forgot to be entertaining.
Their cover of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was an indulgence for the night, and Mr. Parker even apologized for his karaoke style attempt at the vocals, but it was too fun to be dismissed. The highlight of the set, apart from a lovely version of “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” was Mr. Coyne joining the band for a cover of the Lips’ “Are You a Hypnotist??”. The two bands are simpatico, leading Mr. Parker to mention, “This is the only band we are going to miss touring with.”
After a break, Flaming Lips opened their set in spectacular fashion. With the band playing John Carpenter’s Halloween theme, Mr. Coyne ascended a podium dressed as the lead character of the movie “Carrie,” in tiara, prom dress, and rose bouquet. A girl dressed as Miley Cyrus, riding the shoulders of a man in a bear costume, poured a bucket of blood over Mr. Coyne, and the stage erupted in confetti cannons and red balloons. The concert had begun!
The opening song, “The W.A.N.D.” from 2006 put the audience in party mode — it’s easily one of the band’s catchiest, bounciest numbers. But then the Lips explored songs from “The Terror” and a lot of that energy dissipated. The title track, for instance, begins with a menacing synthesized throb, then soprano vocals offer a plaintive cry, then … the song fades away. On record, “The Terror” as an album, is a fascinating exploration of existential dread. In concert, it was a damp squib rendered damper by the out-of-place party atmosphere. (The LED rope lights that ran from the podium like space-age spaghetti looked amazing, by the way.) The band reached back occasionally, like “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” “Race for the Prize” from 1999, but this was a “Terror”-centered show.
The Lips performed well, but in retrospect it was Tame Impala that stole the show. Wayne Coyne and Co. deserve a round of applause however, for throwing the party in the first place.