I’ve been thinking recently about Wayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips. I think about him from time to time, especially ahead of a tour.
A thousand years ago I was playing the same festival as them, in Belgium somewhere. That the Lips were playing was a big deal for me. I loved them, and was supremely jealous of their spectacular live show, involving as it did, costumed extras, stage trickery, brilliantly simple theatrical moments, confetti cannons, laser pointers, mirrors…. you get the gist. It was a Vegas show on a Skegness budget. I was playing with my trio, the much loved Olli and Oli, but by this point the Flaming Lips were a trio as well. Yet their show was huge!
Of course, if you’re headlining the main stage you’re going to be earning more than some guy on the acoustic stage, so you can add production value. You can afford a to put on a bigger show. Or so my thinking went.
The show was spectacular. Personable, but somehow huge. Wayne ending the show by zorbing over the heads of the audience in a giant inflatable hamster ball. I can’t imagine health and safety allowing such things now. They certainly wouldn't allow for the moment, when on a darkened stage, Coyne told the audience to direct their laser pointers (handed out free on arrival) to where they thought he might be. At that precise moment, he whipped out a huge mirror and reflected the thousands of scattered beams back out into the night. It was breathtaking, probably blinded a few unfortunates, and would have sent alarms blaring in any low flying aircraft.
In short, it was beautiful. And looking back, it seems a precursor for the flashing wrist bands employed by today’s megastars. It was joyous moment. It also sends a message to the audience: “this moment is for all of us, but it needs all of us for it to work”. Clap or Tinkerbell can’t fly.
I grew up in an era where even to talk to the audience was considered uncool. Some bands even played with their backs to the crowd, to prove that they were “true” artists. The same crowd that had paid good money to see them, by the way. May we never see another shoe-gaze movement ever again.
Sure, a gig is a collection of songs, played in the best way we know how, but shouldn’t it also aspire to be more? Don’t the audience deserve more?
It was with a head full of these thoughts, that after an 8 hour drive yesterday (it should’ve been less but my mind wanders), I went to see Feist in concert, playing in Utrecht the day before me. My venue is smaller in case you were wondering.
I’m not going to spoil the show for those who have yet to see it, but take it from me, it’s extraordinary. And in this instance, the word is justified. She uses the simplest of ideas, perfectly realised, to make the ordinary become so fucking extra, it left me literally spinning. And of course she has song after song. I’ll think about it some more and write about it when her tour is over maybe… there are too many moments that need to land right without foreknowledge, and if you’ve seen it, don’t tell anyone else either.
Of course Feist is an indie superstar, who was a genuine mainstream star for a minute, so she can probably invest in a show, the same way I thought Wayne Coyne could. Or maybe not, the internet has eroded all but the biggest acts’ earning power. Theatre shows don’t really make money. That’s why these days you’ve rarely heard of any act that isn’t playing arenas by album two.
And as you get bigger, so do your expenses. Most acts I know, of varying degrees of fame, are living on their luck these days, and downsizing to stay afloat. But that’s another essay.
But one thing I’m sure is true of both the Flaming Lips’ gig and Feist, is that they start from the premise of wondering what's possible. Given little money but a bucket load of imagination.
Not listening to the advice of agents, managers, labels and accountants, and probably friends. Imagining a way through the problems, to bring an inspirational night’s entertainment to a small festival or theatre stage, in a way that will transform a gig into A SHOW! Exclamation mark! A SHOW!
And the thing I remember most from that long ago festival in Belgium, is watching the backstage preparations for the imminent Flaming Lips spectacle. Fake blood being scrubbed from last night’s suit, extras being fitted for giant animal costumes, confetti canons being stuffed, set lists written, guitar strings changed, zorb balls inflated.
One man was doing it all. For a headlining show at a major European festival. One man.
And that man was Wayne Coyne.
Anything is possible if you can dream it. All that remains is to do the work. Night after night.
Anyway, I’m on tour for a few dates, thinking about this stuff, wondering what’s still possible, glad there are people out there still trying to elevate this struggling art form into something magical.
Night after night.
GO see the Feist show if you can.
I’m at the Tivoli Vredenberg, Utrecht, tonight. Maybe see you there.