The Flaming Lips are nothing if not unpredictable. In the past, they’ve assembled orchestras of boom boxes and organized automotive symphonies; last time they played Los Angeles, they handed out portable radios so concertgoers could access a special closed-circuit live mix. So no one should have been surprised when two-thirds of the band took the stage at the Knitting Factory dressed in animal costumes. But with Steven Drozd back on drums for the first time in years, and the more outre sonic experiments held in check, the Flaming Lips have reinvented themselves as a straight-ahead rock band.
Of course, straight-ahead is a relative term. Their new album “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” (Warner Bros.) is a loosely knit concept album; thankfully, the concept was jettisoned for the live show. But the album’s dreamy optimism could be felt throughout the evening.
Front man Wayne Coyne is a whimsically beatific ringmaster, beaming at the crowd, shaking his fist victoriously during each song, his head and hands at one point covered in blood-like stigmata. While he asks in the opening song “Do you realize that everyone you will know will die?,” he hopes you’ll accept it as our fate. Yes, his attitude seems to say, our time is short, so we may as well have some fun and throw a party while we’re here. (He’s what Thom Yorke could be if only the Radiohead singer would step down from his martyr’s pedestal).
Smoke, balloons filled with glitter and confetti streamed out from the stage; Coyne donned a monkey puppet and mouthed the lyrics to “Waiting for Superman.” The word love shows up in just about every tune; Coyne sang so often of the overwhelming power of love that it’s disconcerting when he hugs some balloons so tightly they burst.
Still, his embrace of music is wide and deep. The synthesized fanfares, clotted basslines and deliberate tempos are not that far removed from King Crimson or Gentle Giant, but the Lips play their prog rock with punkish glee, finding grandeur without pomposity.
A rumbling, slowed-down version of the Kylie Minogue hit “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” was, Coyne claimed, played unironically. He might talk about seeing Husker Du, but follows up with “Fight Test,” a song that takes its melodic inspiration from Cat Steven’s doleful generation gap ballad “Father and Son.” And unlike so many alternative musicians, he embraces his success, proud and somewhat amazed that “She Don’t Use Jelly” became a big enough hit that it punched the band’s ticket to “Beverly Hills, 90210” in 1994.
As the band played, clips ranging from images of Leonard Bernstein at the conductor’s podium to “2001: A Space Odyssey” were projected behind the band. But the bit that garnered the most applause and laughter was “The Teletubbies,” which made perfectly warped sense. With their avuncular, psychedelic generosity, Coyne and the Flaming Lips would be the perfect hosts for a latter-day kids show.
The Flaming Lips return to Los Angeles as part of the Unlimited Sunshine tour Aug. 11 at the Greek; New York dates are scheduled at Prospect Park in Brooklyn on Aug. 24 and 25.