U.K.’s Virgin Festival:

BALTIMORE – The Flaming Lips are known for over-the-top live shows with outrageous spectacles. So, before their set at the Virgin Festival at the Pimlico Race course in Maryland, I had understandably high expectations. What I didn’t expect was transvestites, fire-breathers, aliens, Santa Clauses and a monkey-man in a sequined leotard.

As I walked into the festival and picked up a schedule at the beginning of the day, I found that the organizers slotted The Lips to play at the same time as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, pitting two of the most innovative and exciting rock bands of our musical era against each other.

It didn’t take long for me to make my decision, but the choice of schedule forced everyone at the festival to take a side. Are you a Chili Peppers fan or a Lip-head? The decent-sized crowd at the Flaming Lips’ set was, of course, smaller than the Chili Peppers’ gathering, but those that gathered to see the Lips on the smaller stage could not have been disappointed.

In their earlier days, the Lips weren’t considered accomplished musicians, but they made up for their technical shortcomings with generous amounts of distortion, noise and eccentricity, especially in their live shows. Since the release of 1999’s critically acclaimed “The Soft Bulletin,” though, the Lips have seemingly matured to become a popularly accepted, trendsetting group.

Their set, which started at the same time as the Red Hot Chili Peppers’, was visually overwhelming, politically motivated at times and, above all else, weird. Before the concert started, Wayne Coyne, the Lips’ lead singer, meticulously sound-checked his microphone and inspected the camera he had implanted on the end of it for 15 minutes while a roadie in a batman outfit carefully laid out plastic guns filled with confetti and huge balloons – everything had to be perfect.

A virgin to a Lips concert, I looked at the stage preparation and the men and women emerging from backstage dressed respectively in alien and Santa Claus regalia and scratched my head. I didn’t know if this was a concert or the set of a bootleg sci-fi movie.

The concert began with Coyne roving the audience (crowd surf-style) inside of a plastic bubble as fellow Lip Stephen Drozd laid down he opening for “Race for the Prize” from “The Soft Bulletin.” Coyne followed with “Free Radicals” from their newest release, pleading with the crowd before starting the song to yell “Fuck!” at the end of the chorus.

Coyne didn’t shy away from making political statements, asking the crowd, “What can a song do to stop a bomb? … What can a song do to stop a George W. Bush?”

New and increasingly weird costume-clad people greeted the Santa Clauses and aliens at each side of the stage during the songs. A portly transvestite shot people with a plastic gun, and a fire-breather extinguished a flame in his mouth as Coyne sang “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” with the help of a nun puppet on his hand.

With confetti, streamers and huge balloons falling all over the crowd and the stage, it’s incredible that the Lips were able to play their instruments. Always smiling, Coyne has a way of forging personal relationships with everyone in the crowd. His earnest requests always seem to be aimed directly at you, and in this way he is able to elicit genuine reactions from the crowd.

Before beginning the “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” Coyne pleaded “I know you’ve watched a lot of music today, but we are going to ask you, please, give up your last molecule of love if you can!”

The Lips ended their set with “She Don’t Use Jelly,” their first commercial hit, and “Do You Realize?” which Coyne sings in his characteristic falsetto.

While the wonderful atmosphere they create at their concerts is overpowering, I’m convinced they could play without any distractions and still give a great performance on musical merit alone, even though that monkey in the leotard was a pretty good dancer.

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