With its flair for celebration and its embrace of the communal spirit, a run-of-the-mill Flaming Lips concert is a lot like a New Year's Eve party. So imagine what an actual Flaming Lips New Year's Eve concert must be like. A crowd of Lips loyalists got that chance Sunday at Galen Center, the new basketball arena on the USC campus, as the veteran alt-rock stalwarts from Oklahoma City upped the ante on their usual antics.
The band took the stage by climbing down a ladder from what looked like a flying saucer -- actually a circular lighting rig that descended from the ceiling. From its crown, singer Wayne Coyne emerged in a huge, clear balloon and did his walk atop the outstretched arms of the audience. That's one of the usual antics and has become the defining visual image for the band.
Instead of the usual crowd of fans and friends in animal costumes flanking the band on stage, the onlookers Sunday were Santa Clauses and sexy, gyrating aliens, and after the midnight countdown amid confetti and streamers, the arena was flooded with large blue and white balloons, the sheer number of which created a strangely beautiful sight. "Even by our standards, that's pretty good," Coyne said to the crowd, marveling at the scene.
For Coyne and company, there appeared to be an extra element of redemption in play. Flaming Lips and its fans were deprived of their party last Dec. 31 when the downtown Giant Village event, where they were scheduled to play, was canceled because of an earlier rain, amid much complaint.
Coyne, one of rock's chattiest frontmen, recapped that history at the beginning of the show, revealing an extreme degree of regret. If he seemed more devastated by that experience than most anyone else, well, that's one of the things his fans cherish -- an intensity of feeling that translates into a heart-on-his-sleeve openness and music that always aims squarely at the heart, even if it gets there through literate irony or surreal psychedelia.
That's helped make the quartet one of rock's ruling cult bands, but though it can play places such as the Hollywood Bowl, where it headlined last summer, it hasn't been arena-ized.
Sunday's concert might have been one of the highest-profile New Year's Eve shows in the land, but it had an informal, seat-of-the-pants feel. Its special effects were simple, if effective, and the Lips often seemed to be winging it, as when Coyne filled time before midnight bemoaning the indecipherability of "Auld Lang Syne" but singing a bit of it anyway. The music was correspondingly direct, with a natural, "indie" feel still in force, from the orchestral textures to the punky jams.
The night didn't belong to the Flaming Lips alone. The second-billed act, Gnarls Barkley, is the one with the big hit ("Crazy") and the Grammy nominations, and principals Cee-Lo Green and Danger Mouse took the stage in sync with the night's galactic theme, dressed in astronaut space suits, which they shed after one song in favor of NASA jumpsuits.
As they've done in their recent appearances here, both on their own and at the KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas, the duo and their supporting musicians blasted through musical borders as they merged soul, pop and rock, and the eccentrically charismatic singer Green's calls for liberation and celebration made him the ideal precursor to the Lips' similar message.
Indie-rock heroine Cat Power opened, demonstrating her ongoing transformation from fragile, enigmatic artiste to soul chanteuse. Her Dirty Delta Blues Band (including Judah Bauer from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and drummer Jim White from the Dirty Three) lived up to its name with flavorful down-home settings for Power originals and striking reinventions, such as a rocked-up version of the Miracles' "Tracks of My Tears."
This was also Galen Center's baptism as a rock venue, with mixed results. It doesn't offer much in the way of personality or amenities, with long lines and slow going at the entrances and the concessions. With a capacity of less than 10,000, it's an intimate arena, but the sound was inconsistent, marked by a pronounced echo off the back wall.
But it wasn't enough to mar the musical and visual spectacle, and when Green, Danger Mouse and Power joined the Lips in 2007's youngest moments to perform the Louis Armstrong hit "What a Wonderful World," they managed to make the song's wistful optimism seem like something real.