To say that the Sonic Youth/Flaming Lips show at the Pageant in St. Louis was the best concert of the year is an understatement. How about: it was one of the best concerts ever.
Opening the show was the Magic Numbers, a folk-edged pop outfit that would fit in nicely at Bonnaroo (and for all we know, maybe they were there). The Magic Numbers are an example of fine musicianship and well-crafted songs, but it was difficult to relax into their vibe with the anticipation of the show ahead. Unfair? Yes. But who could help it? It also didn’t help that various Santas, the Statue of Liberty, and space aliens were mulling about the crowd, giving us a taste of the forthcoming joy and madness.
Sonic Youth opened their set with “Candle,” an old favorite from one of the greatest achievements of the 80s, Daydream Nation. One of their more catchy songs, it got the attention of many spectators just there for the Flaming Lips, and long-time Sonic Youth fans were hyped up in a frenzy. A treat was “Catholic Block,” another older song from their album Sister, which many agree to be one of their finest moments. These two songs alone helped any serious Sonic Youth fan remember this concert for years to come.
Most of the Sonic Youth set consisted of songs off their new album Rather Ripped, an album that steers away from noise and experimentation but seem to feel a little more like old Sonic Youth when played live. There was more noise in songs like “What A Waste” and “Jams Run Free,” and it was a beautiful thing.
After the second tune, “Incinerate”, Thurston Moore proudly told the audience that they researched the last songs they played live for St. Louis in 2003, and decided not to play any of those for this performance. This may have been one of the coolest aspects of their set. However, the main highlight was during “Pattern Recognition,” where the whole band went into a noise freak-out. Thurston was down on the stage floor shaking his guitar like he was having a seizure, and then proceeded to make as much noise as possible. As the rest of the band stood onstage, making their own beautiful catastrophes, Thurston went into the audience and crowd-surfed while creating his signature feedback overtones. After around five minutes of experimentation, the audience, with shocked faces, applauded loudly-- knowing they had seen one of the greatest live moments to fill the halls of the Pageant.
Sonic Youth live at the Pageant, August 2006
Although their set ran short and there was no encore, (one of the down sides as an opener for the Flaming Lips) Sonic Youth still made their point that they can rock out any crowd and weird out any unsuspecting listener.
After that incredible high, the audience geared up for the next trip. Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, never too proud to help set up, got applause even as he sound-checked his instruments. It was a weird emotional and mental shift from the Sonic Youth spaciness to the Lips as the giant screen behind the stage encouraged the audience to join in to this most beautiful, happy, “epic” experience--that culminated in a big “Fuck Yeah!” posted onscreen at the precise moment a shower of giant yellow balloons and cannons of streamers and confetti hit the crowd. As the balloons bounced gently overhead, the strobes flashed and the psychedelic images moved across the screen, the Lips poured out a melodious cacophony of sound that practically levitated the venue on the sheer power of Joy.
The Flaming Lips, August 2006
“That’s the most insane entrance I think we’ve ever made,” Coyne laughed, complimenting the hundred or so in the audience who dressed up in alignment with their chorus line of Santas, aliens, and astronauts dancing on the stage wings. “Thanks for making it a fuckin’ freak festival!” he said with genuine glee and pride in St. Louis. Then he pulled out one of those boxing nun puppets and the band gave us the most wonderful title track from Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. The overwhelming feeling of the night was How can something be so silly and simultaneously, so beautiful? And the thing was, the message of the Flaming Lips this evening was an important one, too. Not ones to hit the audience over the head with political rants, Coyne spoke briefly about the power of songs, encouraging St. Louis to join in on “a protest song of sorts,” “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song.” He shouted, “Sing it like you’re some kind of hydrogen bomb! We want to see that level of devastation!” Huge cases of confetti tumbled open from the rafters and under strobe lights, cast a magical, slow motion feeling.
A similar set to the one they performed at Grant Park in Chicago for Lollapalooza earlier that month, the Pageant’s contained environment showed off every trick to its fullest advantage and created a sense of intimacy and experience that was just impossible to conjure with Lolla’s 30,000 people on a baseball field in daylight.
Perhaps Wayne Coyne said it best after their goofy radio hit, “She Don’t Use Jelly” turned into an anthem: “The reason why Flaming Lips audiences are gonna change the world is that they know you can heal tragedy with your smiles and exuberance.” The band closed the set with the most beautiful, “Do You Realize??” and walked off the stage. A Captain America figure (needlessly) encouraged the crowd to chant for an encore and the result was deafening.
“You knew we were gonna come back!” Wayne laughed. Then, reflecting on the beauty of the moment and the connection with the crowd, “This is the perfect moment to tell someone here that you love them. Don’t miss it. OK, here we go…” and they launched into “A Spoonful Weighs A Ton.” As they played, characters ran into the crowd, spontaneously hugging anyone near.
And then, the moment like no other. The most mind-blowing three minutes of the entire night. The Flaming Lips closed with a fantastic cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” WTF?! So, they did get their anti-war message in! What a brilliant way to do it. And we are still reeling from the fallout.
Special thanks to Ken Krueger and KSquare Productions for all their help. Photos by J. Gordon