Lips bring out best of Beck


October 20, 2002


While Beck has always made good records—including the new “Sea Change,” one of the strongest of his career—he has just as often been a problematic live performer.

But in an usual pairing with Oklahoma City’s fabulous Flaming Lips during a sold-out show at the Chicago Theatre on Friday night, the diminutive Los Angeles singer and songwriter found the band that he has always been meant to play with.

Where Beck shields himself behind a cloak of irony, a slight smirk, and an affected cloud of angst, Lips bandleader Wayne Coyne lights up the stage with a mile wide grin, thousand-watt sincerity, and the joy of being alive. Coyne and his bandmates brought out the best in the man they were backing. And if Beck still seemed a somewhat surreal presence (it isn’t hard to believe the rumors that he’s become a Scientologist), the combination brought a new welcome emotional resonance to his music.

The Lips started the evening with a set of their own orchestrated psychedelic pop, following the same outline they used when playing the Aragon as part of the Unlimited Sunshine tour several weeks ago. With Leonard Bernstein “conducting” on a giant video screen, a dozen friends dancing in furry animal costumes, Coyne cheerleading maniacally, and confetti, fog, and oversize balloons flying everywhere, it’s safe to say that the regal confines of the Chicago Theatre have never seen a spectacle quite like it.

Unfortunately, Beck’s crew or the house management cut the group off after only seven songs by turning up the house lights. Then, what was supposed to be a 15-minute intermission turned into a 45-minute wait, making the insult to the Lips and their many fans seem even harsher. The band could well have played for another 20 minutes.

Beck was in fine voice throughout, and he started his own 23-song set by playing several tunes solo acoustic, and doing an odd cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” on synthesizer while feeding his vocals through a vocoder (an electronic instrument that simulates a “robot” voice). Later on, he delivered a moving rendition of “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” while sitting cross-legged on the floor, playing a droning harmonium.

The headliner made several snarky comments acknowledging that the Lips’ day-glo “Fantasia” routine was a hard act to follow. But his set really started to come alive when the band joined him midway through a triumphant version of “The Golden Age,” the lead track from his new album.

“Sea Change” is a brilliant and heartfelt “dark night of the soul” record, apparently inspired by the painful end of Beck’s longtime romantic relationship. What the Lips brought to songs such as “Paper Tiger,” “Lonesome Tears,” and “Little One” was the promise of renewal that comes after a difficult catharsis. The effect was like the Neil Young of “Tonight’s the Night” fronting KC and the Sunshine Band on acid—though it was much cooler and less affected than that analogy might suggest.

In recent years, the Lips have been as much a performance troupe as a band, playing largely to programmed backing tracks. But their rock ’n’ roll chops haven’t faded. Steven Drozd played fluid lead guitar and occasional keyboards, while Michael Ivins laid down solid bass lines and Coyne added guitar noise, burbling electronics, shouted vocals through a bullhorn, and more cheerleading.

Two members of the Lips’ extended family (neither of whom were ever properly introduced to the crowd) fleshed out the band on drums and keyboards. Drummer Clifford (just Clifford) was especially powerful, replacing the sometimes fussy rhythms of usual Beck percussionist Joey Waronker with a stripped-down and irresistible propulsion.

In general, the Lips brought a much rougher garage-band feel to Beck’s material. (The rawness was emphasized by the fact that this was only the second show of the tour.) As expected, this worked well on rockier material such as “Loser” and “Devil’s Haircut,” which nicks its riff from the “Nuggets” classic, “Psychotic Reaction.” But it also aided Beck’s soul and funk forays, upping the energy and toning down the usual hint of cheesiness in tunes such as “Get Real Paid” and “Where It’s At.”

During the latter, the penultimate song of the night, Coyne and Beck jumped offstage as the band did an extended vamp. In a great and telling moment, they ran up the center aisle, out into the lobby, to the merchandise booth, and they returned wearing T-shirts advertising each other’s band.

Beck may have outsold the Lips ten to one over the course of his career. But on this night, he needed them more than they needed him, and the collaboration may end up being as legendary in the world of alternative rock as the one that paired Young with Crazy Horse or Bob Dylan with the Band in a previous generation.