London’s Alexandra Palace provided a spectacular venue for the biggest event yet in ATP’s Don’t Look Back series, as The Flaming Lips, Dinosaur Jr and Deerhoof came together to perform their most respected albums in full on one special, spectral evening in north London. The sun was still beaming through the windows into the main hall as Deerhoof took the stage, and crashed energetically through the frantic prog-pop of their 2004 record Milk Man. Singer Satomi Matsuzaki threw bizarre shapes as she belted out the childlike melodies of “Giga Dance” and “Milking” while the band, particularly incredible drummer Greg Saunier, dart through tangent after schizoid tangent. It’s a heady mix to take in, but the crowd lap it up.
Next up are Dinosaur Jr, who perform their 1988 slacker classic Bug in full. From the first scuzzy chords of “Freak Scene”, it’s clear that J Mascis and co. have a big following in tonight, and despite very little crowd interaction they get a huge reception. Mascis seems as content as ever to let their tunes do the talking, and he seems happiest when conjuring up coruscating shards of noise from his Jazzmaster. They sound positively monolithic as they bounce around inside Ally Pally’s cavernous interior. They make a swift exit following the heavy sludge-rock of “Don’t”, applauded enthusiastically side-stage by tonight’s master of ceremonies, Wayne Coyne.
Coyne and the rest of the Flaming Lips hover around a lot before their set, and Coyne makes a heartfelt announcement before they begin, saying how exciting it is to play the same venue that Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd did back in the late 60s. He then reappears a few moments later, surfing over the crowd in his now infamous space bubble, as the band build up a hail of psychedelic noise. He then dashes back, hitting the stage as the rest of the Lips crash into the still glorious “Race For The Prize”, and confetti, balloons and all manner of multi-colour carnage ensues. If there is a more joyful, exhilarating and downright fun song than this in modern rock I’d like to hear it, and the packed hall go appropriately nuts with every wordless chorus.
The band then make their way through 1999 masterpiece The Soft Bulletin, and Coyne frequently reminds us about how hard it is for him to revisit some of this material. “A Spoonful Weighs A Ton” and the truly incredible “The Spark That Bled” are bellowed along with by the crowd, as fans dressed as characters from The Wizard Of Oz dance on the stage. Visually the band pull out all the stops – confetti cannons, balloons, lasers, giant hands with lasers in them, a gong covered in lasers (basically, a whole ton of lasers) – are all employed to head-spinning effect.
Coyne also makes frequent reference to how hard to sing some of the tunes are, but he seems to forget that what makes The Soft Bulletin such a special record is not only its stunning ambition, but also its imperfections. His vocals on the record are sometimes off-key, but somehow they work brilliantly. And after goading the crowd for encouragement, he sings them perfectly. In fact, the only criticism of the whole evening was Coyne’s long rambling speeches in between each song. He tended to stop the momentum of the show occasionally when it wasn’t needed, but as soon as the band moved into another glorious sonic experimentation (such as the warped lurch of “The Gash”) you forgot all about it.
And as the band returned for a stunning encore of the timeless “Do You Realise”, even the most hard hearted members of the crowd were swept up by the sheer crazy beauty of it all. A very special evening, and one that the Don’t Look Back organisers will do incredibly well to better.
Pictures by Tom Reed