Wayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips put on a fantastical show at Red Rocks last week with the Colorado Symphony.
I went to a small liberal arts college in western NY, where everyone was either in the music program or wanted to be in the music program. Fredonia housed the musicians and everyone else: those who turned teacher or activist or acid head. But one thing we all had in common: we knew of Wayne Coyne. His presence in the local Starbucks or downtown on the weekends generated stories. Coyne sightings were frequent because longtime Lips producer Dave Fridmann hosts the Lips at Tarbox Road Studios up in the wilderness, where Coyne and friends have cultivated everything from Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots to The Soft Bulletin and beyond.
Last Thursday night, The Flaming Lips joined the Colorado Symphony in a special recreation of their 1999 album The Soft Bulletin at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. A crowd made up of Lips fanatics and orchestra-goers alike found equilibrium in a lively collaboration of music, art, and quality. While I replayed elusive Wayne Coyne sighting stories with another Fredonia alum, the Colorado Symphony executed a stunning rendition of the 1910 Igor Stravinsky masterpiece “Firebird”, recreated by conductor André de Ridder. Around us, audience members were either taking in the classical sway of the strings, or yelling about getting drunk. I don’t think anyone in the crowd was ready for the transcendence that was about to go down.
The orchestra played a glimmering intro into “Race for the Prize”, the opening track on The Soft Bulletin. Coyne sang from a pedestal, draped in an electric dress with pulsating lights that flooded him in a glowing aura. As different color streams poured off the stage, Wayne awkwardly adjusted the light dress. He did this frequently throughout the first few tracks off the album. Though it was clear he was uncomfortable in the light creation, the show pressed on, and as “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” began, a choir of what sounded like mermaid-calls seemed to lift up and rescue the audience from any uneasy vibes.
The Lips and the Colorado Symphony performed a beautiful arrangement of “The Spark That Bled”. Coyne held his hands over his chest (and underneath the space dress), repeating "love" for minutes, or what felt like minutes. I don’t actually know. Coyne was really feeling what Ridder and the Colorado Symphony were putting down, referring to them as “a badass group of musicians who absolutely love this music”. The choir added layers of harmonies that hardcore Bulletin fans could only have dreamed of up to this point.
“Buggin’” was Coyne’s best use of the orchestra and audience. He instructed the orchestra and choir to make a buzzing sound, like bees, and to watch his hand gestures for volume. “All those bugs, buzzin’ round,” Coyne sang, lifting his arms higher and higher, bouncing from forte to fortissimo to fortississimo. He instructed the audience to buzz too, creating a musical round that invited us participate, rather than leading a sing-a-long.
Throughout the show, Coyne repeatedly stated that the Lips had never done anything like playing with the Colorado Symphony before. Although the two parties did not rehearse the sheet music and orchestral arrangements for The Soft Bulletin written specifically for Thursday night’s show together until the few days leading up to the show, the Lips performed The Soft Bulletin in 2010 with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. For the Colorado Symphony, the collaboration with the Lips stems from an ongoing effort to work with popular musicians across genres. Over the past few years, the orchestra has performed with DeVotchKa, Kishi Bashi, The Lumineers and Nathaniel Rateliff, among other well-known artists.
The Soft Bulletin is largely considered The Flaming Lips’ masterpiece. The album’s original string sounds were recorded using synthesizers and samples. But at this show, cold wind brushing by, the band’s 1999 release was played the way Coyne and the audience realized it should be. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra filled in for the samples, making it an undeniably magical, galactic, and complicated joint performance.
The crowd felt unity when the musicians performed “Waiting For Superman”. The band and orchestra played through the song with a softer side not typically heard on the album that still has relevance today. “Suddenly Everything Has Changed” was a tearjerker for Coyne: “There’s moments within this song that we try to overcome this peak of sadness. And music will help us get there.” he said.
For their encore, The Lips and CSO played through “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots” and “Do You Realize”. Coyne then broke off and went into his space bubble while the band played a late David Bowie tribute cover of “Space Oddity”. Finally, the band ended on a high note with “Wand”, from the 2006 release At War With The Mystics roaring through on a blaze of confetti-boom glory.
It was undoubtedly the best way to experience The Soft Bulletin. Especially for a Fredonian.
All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.