Flaming Lips Dazzle Desert Daze With The Soft Bulletin, Inflatable Props

By accident or influence, California’s Desert Daze is picking up a lot of the threads that All Tomorrow’s Parties left untied after they called it quits in 2016: ’90s bands are back for a victory lap, festival-goers travel to a far-flung location, Ian Svenonius is given various tasks to do. With the 2019 edition, Desert Daze now has a bunch of bands playing their classic albums in their entirety, including Ween on Saturday and Wu-Tang Clan on Sunday.

On Friday night, the Flaming Lips performed their critical breakthrough The Soft Bulletin. The album, released in 1999, was celebrated as a modern chamber-rock reboot of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. However, in a recent interview I did with Coyne for Tidal Read, he clarified that the experience was far scrappier and the comparison was unintentional: “We were really working with new orchestral sounds that were new to us, ways that we could start to play with them. More like just punk rock do-it-yourself. It’s not even ambitious, we’re just doing lots of stuff,” he said. “We thought, ‘Well, let’s just make a punk rock orchestra.’ Like if we could tell an orchestra to play this way, this is how they would play. Part of it would sound like Walt Disney and part of it could sound like Wagner and part of it just sounded like a fucking, distorted, really loud, freaky orchestra.”

Twenty years later, the live experience of The Soft Bulletin is blown out and macro and full of the bells and whistles they couldn’t afford before they were the Little Major Label Band That Could. Some of their set is still very handmade and punk rock: Those big balloons are probably cheap. Same with sling-shotting Jello shots, or making a gong that lights up, or getting Fred Armisen to introduce you. Some things, however, are decidedly expensive: There’s the giant disco ball, the LED curtains, the stagehands and enough gear to make a live show sound like a lush, multi-tracked album.

Needless to say, the performance was the shaggy Flaming Lips of 1999 filtered through the wacky, insane, meme-ready, festival-headlining Flaming Lips of the last 20 years. The core three-man Bulletin band, now blown out into a six piece, gave the whole album a new majesty: As just one example, they opened with “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” Coyne conducting the band through its ecstatic bursts. As soon as they burst into Bulletin opener “Race For The Prize,” the drums slammed with that album’s Bonham-esque echo — not sure if it was production trickery, triggers, or samples in the electronic kit, but it was really cool. By its end the band was hitting accents like cannon fire. The nü-Lip energy came through when Coyne held up silver balloons organized to spell FUCK YEAH DESERT DAZE, bringing an Instagram sensibility to a BBS-era album.

For his part, Coyne was like a gym trainer throughout the night, constantly goading the crowd to wake up, scream, stay energized, and “come on come on come on come on.” For “Buggin’,” he encouraged the crowd to make insect noises. He told the crowd about a friend in the hospital who was having a baby and was hoping she would have it during their show. After “The Observer,” he tried direct action: “If you guys scream and scream and scream, it will happen even more! Come on, come on! Let’s get this baby out!” His demeanor was like Steve from Blues Clues lost in one of Sid and Marty Krofft’s danker forests.

Of course a lot of this sweeping, ambitious, giddy album is actually about drugs and loss and tragedy. Before a stripped down version of “Waitin’ For A Superman” — just Coyne and Drozd on stage — Coyne pointed out that it was a sad song. If he gets overwhelmed, he said, the crowd should scream and laugh. The version was gorgeous and Coyne did, indeed, seem genuinely moved. Before “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” he told a story about some fans in the crowd celebrating the life of their friend who passed away. Coyne worked his name into the opening line of the song: “Glenn … in our life, is just too valuable.” They were celebrating a 20-year-old album, but the performance was most certainly geared to that Friday night.

And for an encore? An inflatable robot (“Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Pt. 1) and an inflatable rainbow (“Do You Realize??).