Singer Wayne Coyne began the Flaming Lips‘ closing performance at Iceland Airwaves 2014 yesterday with an expression of marvel, remarking to the packed crowd at Vodafone Hall, a sporting arena in Reykjavik, that it had been “nearly 15 fucking years” since his band last played in this country. Then as the Lips revved up their psychedelic engines, coalescing into the folk-pop buoyance of the 1993 hit “She Don’t Use Jelly,” Coyne hoisted an enormous marquee of letters, made of silver balloons, over his head. The message: “Fuck Yeah Iceland.”
That brought a delighted hurrah from the audience. It wasn’t long before Coyne launched the sign into an ocean of upraised hands, where it crowd-surfed throughout the venue all night, until someone accidentally deflated a couple of letters. Yet even by the encore, a dazzling shotgun-love burst of “Do You Realize??” and the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” the letters “I” and “C” were still standing, aloft and proud, in the back near the soundboard. This is a country that takes its gratitude seriously.
Coyne spent a lot of this show – which included the Philadelphia band the War on Drugs, opening with a big rock of thumping introspection seared with phased-fuzz guitar – saying thank you. At one point, Coyne recounted his group’s previous day in Reykjavik: stopping in at shows by the Swedish electro-disco group the Knife and the California glitch-pop group Caribou: witnessing a high-altitude display of the Northern Lights. He also mentioned an encounter with the Icelandic singer and cultural institution Björk, imploring the locals to treat her like national treasure. Nobody here needs reminding. But Coyne’s enthusiasm was the kind that explains why Airwaves – founded in 1999 and primarily sponsored by the national airline, Icelandair – has become an exotic staple of the rock-festival calendar, an intimate weekend of mostly homegrown, eccentric pop modernism set in an otherworldly nature and society. (More on that action, from this year’s Airwaves, in a subsequent report.)
Later, in the encore, Coyne spread the love even further: “Thank you for being such happy freaks.” The Lips prize audience participation in a way many bands promise but few deliver, and this Airwaves crowd responded in spades. Coyne took his traditional see-through-sphere ride beyond the stage, rolling across a tide of hands to the back, and donned a billowing, silver cape during a black, pneumatic passage from 2009’s Embryonic. The foil was rolled out through the audience which grasped and shook it, creating a turbulent sea of shimmer in front of Coyne, who was literally in it up to his neck, singing like an excited, disembodied pharoah.
All You Need Is Love
The harsh, even cruel, reviews that have greeted the Lips’ latest album – a recreation, heavy with celebrity friends, of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – suggest that the band, generally given an indulgent leash by critics, has been deemed ready for a taking-down. There was no sense in Iceland that the Lips got that memo. Coyne conducted the jubilant mayhem like a children’s-TV-show host with a permanently blown mind, flanked by a cast of inflatable-humanoid chums – including Santa Claus, the sun, a pair of butterflies and a catfish in uniform – and gamely attempting to play guitar with long streams of tinsel hanging from his cuffs. The last word, blazing from the video screen behind him as the band walked off after the main set, was “Love.”
Coyne is an imprecise singer, with an endearing man-child pitch that frequently strays from its prescribed route in concert. But as songwriter, he is certain in his passage, pressing the gently amusing self-determination in “She Don’t Use Jelly,” the faith in solitary strength in the title track of 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and the show of communal force that lifts the sun in “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” from 1999’s The Soft Bulletin with the missionary zeal and plaintive-ballad stride of early-Plastic Ono Band John Lennon. At Airwaves, Coyne rode his stubborn optimism forward on sheets of Pink Floyd-style keyboards and iridescent spears of sizzling-fuzz guitar, all the way through to that thundering, genuinely majestic Beatles cover.
Afterward, outside the hall, it was hard to hear the Lips as spent and kitsch. A gang of young Icelanders, wrapped in a large, wrinkled chunk of that foil retrieved from the floor, sang the chorus of “Do You Realize??” like a ragged, tripping choir, into the frosted-night air. They sounded ready to lift the sun, as soon as it came within arms’ reach.