Oklahoma’s Flaming Lips have subverted expectation of how a “rock” band should sound and behave for so long that the most radical performance they could give at this stage of their singular career would be merely to perform an hour-and-a-half of songs absent psychedelic videos, Yeti-costumed cheerleaders, or Mini Cooper-sized balloons full of confetti.
Still, no one was complaining at Merriweather Friday night when the Lips turned up with all their circus wagons full of Yippie ephemera in tow. Frontman Wayne Coyne was onstage 20 minutes before their performance began, helping to set up gear in full view of the tri-generational crowd. (He got a big cheer when he unpacked the plastic bubble he would soon inflate and enclose himself in for his customary walk-and-roll above the most pit.) Thanks to a carefully positioned door in the back-of-stage video screen bringing us the spectral gyrations of a nude female fire-dancer, Coyne’s bandmates eventually joined him via, um, the birth canal to slam into the euphoric opener “Race for the Prize.”
That dizzying decade-old standard was one of the quasi-hits among a baker’s dozen that included four from the Lips’ 2006 At War with the Mystics along with a pair from their upcoming Embryonic album. The second of the new songs, “Convinced of the Hex,” with its dense polyrhythms and blurts of Eastern-accented guitar, was the evening’s musical showstopper. Yet it was predictably overshadowed by singalongs of the unlikely-bordering-on-Dadaesque anthems “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1” and “She Don’t Use Jelly.”
Coyne observed near the end of his band’s 95-minute set that the crowd was a sea of smiles, and so it was, save for when he called for everyone to flash a peace sign while he played “Taps” in protest of the war in Iraq. (A few concertgoers conspicuously sat on their hands, demonstrating that Flaming Lips fandom is a big tent.) Still, there was no getting around the sense that the tunes often felt more like a soundtrack to the carnival happening onstage rather than the evening’s rasion d’etre. It's a fun show, but with fewer beach toys and more selections from the Lips' very worthy songbook, "extraordinary" could be within reach.