Lips gives heat to Sunshine tour

September 2, 2002



As war clouds gather on the horizon and the shadow of paranoia grows while America approaches the anniversary of 9/11, the sense of community, uplift, and optimism that great music provides can pierce the dark like a ray of light.

Witness the Unlimited Sunshine tour, which pulled into a sold-out Aragon Ballroom on Friday night.

In terms of its musical diversity and the crowd's open-minded acceptance of the same, the ambitious six-band, five-and-a-half hour bill rivaled the earliest Lollapalooza lineups or last summer's Area:One concert, and special props are due to headliners Cake for engineering it all (even if they found their own show stolen out from under them).

It's not that the genial, partly pop, somewhat jazzy jam band was bad. It's just that the laidback grooves and subtle hooks of hits such as "Short Skirt, Long Jacket" are much better suited to a smaller club environment than the cavernous Aragon. And rare indeed is the band that could have followed and bettered the penultimate act, Oklahoma City's fabulous Flaming Lips.

Riding high in their fourth incarnation during a long and twisted 20-year career, the Lips today are as much a theater troupe as they are a rock band. Singer and primary songwriter Wayne Coyne has become a galvanizing, near messianic performer, bounding up and down in a white suit that was soon stained with sweat and fake stage blood, laying healing hands on the audience like some born-again preacher, and urging the crowd to embrace the joys of being alive.

Coyne downplays the religious undertones of the Lips' recent music, but the philosophical tilt of songs such as "Do You Realize?" and "Waitin' for a Superman" from 2000's "The Soft Bulletin" (which comprised most of the set) and the recent "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" are unmistakable, and their central message could be summed up in the last line of the evening: "The sound they made was love."

Like a postmodern, art-rock, thrift-store version of the Merry Pranksters, the band challenged the Aragon audience to step out of itself and giddily embrace the moment. And the fans respon-ded, gleefully singing along with Coyne as the trio's pre-recorded orchestrations were augmented by longtime bassist Michael Ivins and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd, whose guitar, keyboards, and backing vocals are the band's secret weapon (though it was also nice to see him return to hammering the drums on two tunes).

Throughout their set, the Lips were flanked by half a dozen friends dressed as cartoon characters (a giant bunny, a big penguin), who led the crowd in its cheerleading and shined spotlights on the performers.

Meanwhile, several giant disco balls cast shafts of light through the aging ballroom, Leonard Bernstein conducted an imaginary orchestra on a giant video screen, and Coyne hurled countless handfuls of colorful confetti into the crowd to punctuate key lines of the songs.

The circus had come to town, but the spectacle was secondary to the music, and it all held great promise for the Lips' upcoming collaboration with Beck. (The group will open for him at the Chicago Theatre on Oct. 26, then serve as his backing band.)

The second strongest act of the evening opened the show at the early hour of 6 p.m. Kinky is a quintet from Monterrey, Mexico that combines traditional Latin American rhythms with percolating techno dance music.

During an energetic and hypnotizing set, it was a merger that sounded completely natural, and thoroughly energizing.

Like Cake, Modest Mouse would have been better served by a club setting. Its indie-rock anti-star stage presence was lost at the Aragon, but its droning, trancey guitar-rock (which owes a lot to Built to Spill and, of course, Neil Young) was embraced by the enthusiastic crowd nonetheless.

The long-running hip-hop trio De La Soul also received a heroes' welcome. On the one hand, it was encouraging to see the group performing old-school-style, on a bare stage, relying only on DJ Maceo's hard-pumping rhythms and the fluid rapping of Posdnous and Trugoy.

On the other hand, the reason we love this crew is that it has consistently made amazingly complex, multilayered, psychedelic albums, from the classic "Three Feet High and Rising" through last year's "AOI: Bionix." But there was little hint of those wonderfully colorful "Daisy Age" soundscapes in their spartan stage show.

Tying all of the above together with between-set acoustic performances were the Hackensaw Boys, a traditional hillbilly combo that seemed to have stepped right out of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"--except for the fact that they invited the crowd (all 4,500 people) to join them after the show in their ramshackle tour bus to smoke some pot.

The Boys were probably joking. But that crack, like the entire evening, underscored that there is more than one way to spread a little sunshine.