String Cheese Incident & The Flaming Lips, Patriot Center, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 10/03
This show marked the second of two nights featuring the unique paring of the String Cheese Incident and the Flaming Lips. While SCI are well-traveled veterans of the jamband scene, the Lips have only started playing to these shaggy crowds in the last year. This combo promised plenty of fun for everyone, including me and my concert companion, Fitz.
We arrived late, thanks the venue's location in the middle of the Northern Virginia's DC suburbs. Evening traffic in the DC area makes it all but impossible to get anywhere that's not within 5 miles of your house by 7 PM, when the Flaming Lips were schedule to take the stage. Fitz hit the nail on the head when he said, "Stuff shouldn't start before 8PM around here." Luckily, we were able to get right into the lot and find a space within 100 yards of the doors (probably because of our late arrival). We'd hoped that the 7PM start time wouldn't happen but when we got in the Lips were well into their set so it seems they started right on cue.
I had caught the Lips twice before this summer, so I had a pretty good idea what I was in for. Fitz had been listening to the Lips for a few years but had never seen them live. I noticed at their shows earlier in the year that the sets were pretty similar, so I wasn't expecting anything wildly different this time around. The fun in this for me was bringing someone else to the show who was taking them in for the first time. These guys are such a head-trip that it's a LOT of fun turning other people onto their live experience.
The first thing we noticed upon entering the arena and making our way to the floor was the sparseness of the crowd. The floor was at best half-full and the seats held only scattered souls who seemed to be resting up for the SCI set. That fact quickly left my mind as we got onto the floor and we were able to take in the stage. It was overflowing with the four musicians, their gear, a giant video screen behind them, a dozen or more people dressed in various animal costumes, balloons of all sizes, blowup robots, confetti, lights and of course sound! Lead singer Wayne Coyne has said about people attending their shows "We're going to entertain you" and the sensory onslaught they provided was sure to accomplish that goal tonight.
Make no mistake The Flaming Lips are not a jamband in the traditional sense. The band worked through their tunes in standard 3-5 minute format, only extending choice numbers for Coyne's stage capers. Most songs were off of their two latest releases (_Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots_ and The Soft Bulletin) including favorites like "Yoshimi" (complete with singing nun puppet), "The Spark That Bled" (with Coyne pouring fake blood over his head), and quasi-hits "She Don't Use Jelly" and "Do You Realize." Even while keeping true to the recorded versions the music was still impressive. Drums and bass absolutely thundered inside the cavernous arena, while jangling guitars, keyboards and computer effects combined to create a neo-psychedelic soundscape that washed over the crowd and flooded the room.
The music was only part of the experience, though, as the video projections played just as much a role in the overall performance. Arty film clips, whacked out Public Service Announcements (Don't snort your brain!) and traditional music videos played during and between songs to keep the crowd rapt. If that wasn't enough, Coyne is an amazing showman and a master of props (like the nun puppet fake blood, balloons and confetti mentioned earlier). This was evident during the encore when, as the music climbed to its peak crescendo he suddenly grabbed a leaf blower and started to inflate a huge, 5-foot-round balloon until it exploded confetti all over the stage and crowd. The trippy effects he created with his mic-mounted video camera and his erratic movements added yet another mind-bending effect to an already twisted scene. Throw in great lighting effects and the show was nothing short of a total sensory feast. The Flaming Lips showed that an opening act need not be a mere prelude.
During the break between bands we headed up into the stands to check out the venue, the crowd and find the "famed" Patriot Beer Garden. The Patriot Center is a mid-sized indoor venue that seats 10,000 for basketball games. It's basically a big, concrete semi-globe with seats all around and the stage at one end of the floor. It's not a bad place at all all the staff were nice, there were plenty of concessions, little or no lines and they had beer, which you can't always get at a college venue. We didn't take in any of the lot scene before or after the show but the word on that was that they weren't allowing much of anything to go on. Inside, however, everything seemed to be totally copacetic as security (if there was any) laid low. This place isn't going to win any awards for acoustics but it wasn't so bad as to be a distraction from the music. The crowd was a mix of college kids, SCI-freaks and scattered other folks there to see the Lips, the scene or some combination of the above. In short, it was not memorable for being particularly good or, thankfully, bad.
While ambling back to the floor as SCI started up their first set, I was struck by how "small" they sounded in contrast to the Flaming Lips. It's not that this dichotomy wasn't to be expected – it just took a couple songs for me to adjust to the more mellow, laid-back groove they were putting out. The crowd was clearly pleased to be hearing the Cheese, though. The early part of the set seemed a little tentative, as maybe the band was also adjusting to the sound of the room. By the time they worked into their third song, Black and White, things started to come around. When the tempo picked up and the band moved into a rocking jam section, I finally started to settle into the music. The jam featured some nice mandolin work with George Benson-like scat vocals layered over the top by Michael Kang. They built this one up nicely as Kang traded licks with keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth into a big release that quickly ebbed back into the slower, funkier beat.
After this highlight the band seemed to settle back into a mild groove again, wandering through songs that ranged in style from Latin/Samba to pop-rock pap. While Kang was impressive on both mandolin and fiddle and Hollingsworth was solid though not awe-inspiring on keys, acoustic guitarist Bill Nershi appeared casually detached from the proceedings during this stretch, alternately sitting on a chair tapping a cowbell or quietly strumming on his acoustic. It was also tough to find the rhythm backbone of bassist Keith Mosley and drummer Michael Travis coming through in the mix. When the band eventually ambled back into a bluegrass beat for their version of "I Know You Rider" the crowd responded. Though their take was fairly straight up, it did lead into an excellent jam segment that finally had the band firing. The spacey jam that ensued had some really nice interplay that kept the crowd engaged until it eventually drifted back into the up-tempo bluegrass beat for the close of the set.
Though it had only a couple of peak moments and some generic-sounding songs, the first set was enjoyable. When we sensed the crowd buzz picking up we started our way out of the beer garden to catch the second set. When I heard the familiar words of "Okie From Muskogee", I knew we'd better hurry back to the floor or we'd miss a rare scene. Sure enough, the members of the Flaming Lips (Okies themselves) had joined SCI for a cover of the Merle Haggard classic. It was a great way to grab the audience right back in for the second set, and it seemed to pump the band up as well. They moved on from there through more varied styles starting with the rock of "Tinder Box", where Mosley's bass finally started coming through loud and clear. Next up was "Miss Brown's Teahouse", a decent tune from Nershi where we finally heard his guitar. He again sat down as they made their way into an improvisational section and the band simmered through a nice segment at the end that had a big finish with some nice lighting effects. They followed this up with a fairly standard bluegrass run through "John Hardy."
At this point they kicked things up a notch as they ripped through the Latin-tinged "Come As You Are". This had a couple of nice jam segments including a big, disco keyboard solo that was Hollingworth's best effort of the night. They followed this up with a cover of "Magic Carpet Ride" that was an odd paring of bluegrass vocal styling and John Kay's 60's biker lyrics. It wound into a nice old western jam that seemed to mellow the crowd out a bit. They brought the tempo and crowd right back up, though, winding into a "Way Back Home" that seemed on the verge of blowing up into a huge blast to close the set. Unfortunately it never quite reached it's full potential, as the band still seemed to be leaving something on the shelf. They quickly returned to the stage for a decent version of "Outside and Inside" highlighted by the dueling slides of Kang and Nershi to wrap up the night.
SCI put on a respectable but unspectacular show. While each set was good, they never really hit the level that their playing seemed to hint that they could reach throughout the night. That's generally been the case when I've seen SCI as they seem to be a notch or two below greatness. In opening the show, though, the Flaming Lips showed that they definitely belong in that class.