Some rules: Rock concerts don’t start on time, on-stage collaborations can’t work and never should the opening band upstage the headliner. But neither the Flaming Lips nor Beck, who passed through the Orpheum Monday night on their joint alt-pop-rock tour, are known for adhering to standards. The Lips emerged in an ecstatic parade of video, smoke, exploding confetti and zebra costumes and indeed, right on time too. Their charge was to warm up the crowd and make way for the Magical Wizard of Rhythm himself. They had to hurry.
But even with time for only nine songs, the Lips elevated the audience with an array of gorgeous sounds and infectious power. As the title track from their new album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots kicked in, the entire crowd fell for frontman Wayne Coyne’s yearning cry, which was backed up by a visual extravaganza.
It certainly didn’t matter that Coyne’s technical skills were unremarkable. What was most important was his pure joy for performance. If he wasn’t ringleader, tossing confetti, Coyne was a little boy lost in the grandeur of the circus. During a life-affirming rendition of “Do You Realize??” he pranced around the stage to the sounds of shimmering organs, shaking exuberantly as he sang and leaving the crowd shaking too.
A half hour later, Beck’s low-key stroll onto stage was met with a deserved crescendo of shouting. But without a word he turned down the mood by launching into a slew of downers, from the old surreal folkie “Pay No Mind” to the new love lament, “Guess I’m Doing Fine.” Perched on a stool in a bland shirt and tie, Beck shunned the goofiness that waxed falsetto on Axl Rose and tossed out two-dollar quips during this summer’s solo tour. Instead, he seemed muted by the mature, dour loneliness that fills his latest album, a beautiful group of breakup dirges called Sea Change.
But this was supposed to be a rock show, and the glorious reentrance of the Flaming Lips during the bittersweet song “The Golden Age” did little to lift Beck’s spirits. During “Lord Only Knows”, a kitchy trucker rap from Odelay, Coyne lifted his arms in desperate appeal for the applause he apparently knew Beck needed. The crowd cheered loudly in loving spurts; but all attempts to make the singer say something were met only by reticent nods and waves. Beck did start to break out of his shell on the Rick James-meets-Kraftwerk jam “Get Real Paid,” getting freaky at the front of the stage with his arsenal of B-boy and robot dance moves. But even with his soulful Mick Jagger strut, Beck looked like he was going through the motions. If the audience’s energy flagged too at times, it was, to steal a line from Beck, nobody’s fault but his own.
But what Beck didn’t put into his demeanor he poured into superb renditions of his finest material. Providing a rich backdrop, the Flaming Lips deftly fleshed out some songs, like “Lonesome Tears” and the lounge jam “Paper Tiger,” as they cleverly injected their own alterna-pop flavor into others like “Lost Cause.” As serious as he seemed at times, Beck was in top form during the most rollicking and silly tracks, like “Nicotine and Gravy,” the harmonica hoedown of “One Foot in the Grave,” and even the dusty “Loser.” “Pick yourself up off the side of the road!” he rapped at the start of “Where It’s At”—perhaps just as much to himself as his audience—before falling down and breaking into a falsetto scream à la James Brown. With their own shouts the audience virtually absolved Beck for his earlier mood stifling; after all, he just might be the hardest working man in show business.
It’s a good thing that the next hardest working showman is Wayne Coyne, whose boundless energy is just as suited to his amazing studio work as to the flashlights he wields onstage behind Beck. But even though both performers are at the top of their respective games as musical scientists, their experiment at the Orpheum proved little about their strength as lab partners. While the music was great, the chemistry seemed lacking. It’s not hard to imagine that Beck, the moody perfectionist who is used to conducting his own cut-and-paste band, may have felt a bit jarred by the Lips’ blend of eclecticism. Coyne’s line in the fantastic opener “Race for the Prize” may have had some unintended significance: “Two scientists are racing for the good of all mankind / Both of them side by side.” If the concert had been a contest of spirit, the results are clear: Beck would be the loser, baby, and the Lips would get to throw their own jubilant victory parade. They certainly have the confetti for it.