“There’s a fun part of the show tonight where it doesn’t have to go exactly how we said it would go,” declared Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne.
The band was only a couple songs into performing its 1999 album The Soft Bulletin with the Colorado Symphony at Boettcher Concert Hall on Friday night, and Coyne already seemed to sense how unique and special the evening was going to be, his declaration a sort of one-line manifesto promising that the show would be a capital “E” Experience.
While performing the entire track list of The Soft Bulletin, the Flaming Lips and the Colorado Symphony wove a musical tapestry in Boettcher Concert Hall. That tapestry was playful at times — such as when fifty-plus choral singers immersed themselves in the crowd, or when Coyne had everyone in the concert hall imitate the sounds of insects for the Lips’ song “Buggin" — and at other times incredibly moving to the point of making the musicians emotional...despite this being music the Flaming Lips have been playing for twenty years.
The Colorado Symphony deserves much of the credit, filling the room with lush accompaniment to the band’s psychedelic sound, with the percussionists and scores of string and brass players — not to mention the choir — making everything sound about ten times more epic.
And as Coyne pointed out during the show, “We’ve also got a conductor with the coolest fucking name: Christopher Dragon.”
Indeed, Dragon was fun to watch as he helmed the orchestral component of the evening's musical madness, appearing to have a strong rapport with the Colorado Symphony players in his fourth season as its associate conductor.
It also helped that Friday night was not the first time the Flaming Lips have performed The Soft Bulletin with the Colorado Symphony; the collaboration goes back to 2016, when the band teamed up with the orchestra to perform the album at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
As Westword learned at the time from the symphony’s chief artistic officer, Anthony Pierce, the idea came together after a chance encounter Pierce had with the Lips’ longtime manager, Scott Booker, at a music-industry conference in Denver years ago. That day, the two exchanged business cards on the off chance that they would ever want to work together.
Later, Pierce – who is part of an ongoing effort at the Colorado Symphony to broaden the organization’s audience through collaboration with contemporary musicians outside of the classical-music sphere – called the number on that business card to see how serious the Flaming Lips were about teaming up on a project.
The two groups decided on reimagining The Soft Bulletin in a live setting using their combined forces.
“And one of the things that [Flaming Lips bandmember] Steven Drozd told me was that if they had had an orchestra when recording the album, they would have used it," Pierce told us in 2016.
Of course, performing The Soft Bulletin at Red Rocks with the symphony would require entirely new sheet music and orchestral arrangements, because the album’s original string sounds were recorded using synthesizers and samples. So Pierce turned to another collaborator: Tom Hagerman of DeVotchKa, who offered to write the orchestral charts.
“And Tom [Hagerman] and I were in and out of Oklahoma City," Pierce recalled. “We spent a couple hours with [the Flaming Lips] before we were back on the plane and [Hagerman] started writing."
After that, the band and Hagerman exchanged sheet music and notes with each other using Dropbox, culminating in some mad-dash rehearsals and their performance at Red Rocks on May 26, 2016.
That outdoor show at the amphitheater may have had more spectacle, including a blow-up hamster ball and an octopus-like suit Coyne wore with LED tentacles, but this past Saturday’s show at Boettcher Hall certainly topped 2016’s show musically; with the well-balanced acoustics and more intimate setting at Boettcher, the band sounded more confident than it had during its previous outing with the Colorado Symphony.
The arrangements and execution on songs like “Waitin’ for a Superman,” “Feel Yourself Disintegrate” and (in the encore) “Do you Realize??” were tight and powerful to the point of inducing goosebumps.
True to the Flaming Lips’ M.O., there was plenty of fun, too, including a blown-up robot that swayed from side to side during the other encore song, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1.”
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But even the contrast between the band, whose bassist, Michael Ivins, was wearing an orange robe and LED glasses like some futuristic Shaolin monk, and the members of the symphony in their formal concert attire, somehow seemed perfectly natural.
Coyne repeatedly told the crowd how lucky he felt to be there and to perform with his fellow musicians on stage.
The crowd, giving at least a half-dozen standing ovations during the evening, felt similarly.
And for those who weren’t lucky enough to be there on Friday, the concert may end up being released as a DVD; Coyne told Westword’s Jon Solomon that the Flaming Lips hoped to edit together footage from the Boettcher Concert Hall show with footage that was taken during the 2016 Red Rocks show. If that film captures a fraction of the magic that was Friday's concert and the 2016 show at Red Rocks, it will be well worth viewing.