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Photograph by Prudence Upton


Sydney Opera House, September 30

How appropriate that this adult children’s party, this celebration of trust and hope and optimism in the face of pretty much anything, this lysergic-tinged but in truth sober, straight and merely naturally buoyant event took place on the day it looked like Sydney’s lockout laws might be overturned.*

We can go out and play mummy and daddy? Oh goody!

Fittingly, given we were marking the 20th anniversary of their career-changing album, The Soft Bulletin, the elements were familiar to anyone who saw The Flaming Lips 15 years ago at the Enmore Theatre or earlier at the Big Day Out.

Familiar, but resolutely just as effective when delivered by what looked like a Tibetan monk with flashing, disco biscuit glasses on bass, a sunshine superman playing almost every instrument, two long-haired (green-wigged) hippies who mostly manned the double drum kits, a stoner who spent much of the night on the ground in front of a panel of pedals, and a wild-haired, white-suited, acid priest-meets-Colonel Sanders frontman.

Oh, and did I mention the show beginning with the mock-heroics of a rock band soaring through Also sprach Zarathustra and at the end incorporating a tribute to the recently died songwriter Daniel Johnston whose line “true love will find you in the end” may as well have been this album’s theme?

Note: this video ends abruptly because that’s when a giant balloon smashed into my head.

There were big balloons and showers of confetti from the first song; lyrics about near death experiences and times when “I thought it was already as heavy as can be” but it got heavier; bigger balloons filled with confetti – all of which exploded eventually, punctuating the night with irregular bangs; exhortations to yell and clap and do whatever we wanted, no matter the temper of any particular song; weird-arse psychedelic art rock songs sung by a man with half a voice, their weirdness semi-obscured by the simple, sun-tipped melodies or genuinely tender emotions; declarations of “I stood up and I said, yeah”; a man in a giant inflatable bubble not so much floating across the audience as galumphing on top of their heads (an apt metaphor for the PM’s Canberra Bubble do you think?); and an encore featuring a blow-up pink and white robot and a room full of people karate-chopping the air shouting “hai hai hai”.

Although the structure of the album played in order and in full meant a mid-show stretch of more sombre tones that would normally have been spread through the setlist, even that served as a launching pad for something like Feeling Yourself Disintegrate, a song about shedding temporal bonds which rose like a hot air balloon as it assured us that “life without death is just impossible”.

It was all managed and mannered, recognisable and Panglossian. And that didn’t matter a jot when they convinced us to be free, child-like … in this moment.

*How apt nonetheless that it was all over just after 10 and everyone was probably home and tucked away with a cocoa well before midnight. Ah, Sydney.

The Flaming Lips play Hamer Hall, Melbourne, October 3-4.

A version of this review appeared originally in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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