The Flaming Lips
The Ryman Auditorium; Nashville, TN
May 11, 2023
Review by Philip Obenschain. Photos by Mary-Beth Blankenship.
For many bands, a tenth album- if they’re fortunate enough to even make so many- all too often winds up being a showcase of artistic decline, waning relevance, and chasing former glory. For Oklahoma City psych rock icons The Flaming Lips, however, their tenth album, 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, arrived in the midst of one of the most impressive second chapters for any rock band in history; a prolific, rich, and unparalleled renaissance which had kicked off a few years prior with 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, which, along with Yoshimi, still remain the group’s best-known and most beloved efforts. At that point, the Lips had already been making music together for almost 20 years- first forming in 1983- and had both experienced a taste of early commercial success amidst the ’90s alt rock boom, and also had started to experiment with more oddball and unorthodox influences. Embracing their psych-rock and experimental tendencies and knack for crafting radio-friendly hooks, while also inventing an artsy, engaging, one-of-a-kind live show to match, the band became bigger than ever at the start of the millennium, and have continued making records and touring the world in the two decades since, cementing their legacy as one of the best bands of their generation- a feat they owe in no small part to the legacy and breakout success of Yoshimi. So, with the classic album turning 20 last year and receiving the deluxe reissue treatment, it’s no surprise that the Lips have been playing a run of special anniversary shows. And though we’ve seen them many times in many different venues and fests in Nashville and beyond over the years, there’s no room more perfect than The Ryman to host such special night of nostalgia and magic. Of course we had to be there to celebrate an album not just hugely influential to music at large, but to our crew personally as well, so read on for our full review and check out photos from a night of Yoshimi and more!
I probably saw the Flaming Lips for the first time sometime around 2006, back when Yoshimi was still fairly new and hugely influential on the trajectory of my musical taste as a teen. I’ve seen them dozens more times in the years since, often at fests, though I always prefer more intimate, better-sounding club and theater shows. They last played The Ryman more than a decade ago, just before I moved to Nashville, so I was beyond excited to catch a band I’ve loved for years performing such a formative album in the best-sounding room in town. And, of course, the sold out show was packed with a diverse crowd of fans just as excited to witness such a special outing.
I wasn’t sure if there would be an opener since there wasn’t one posted, and eyeing the backdrop and gear- clearly belonging to the evening’s headliners- it appeared there wasn’t. With two sets and an encore, this show didn’t need one though, and as a voice began to beam though the PA counting down until start- a little later than posted, the anticipation in the room was palpable. As expected, the band launched straight into Yoshimi from front to back (it always irks me when groups opt to play “full album sets” out of order), lit with a gigantic, impressive LED wall behind them, which both displayed visuals and lights, and also projected the lyrics throughout the entire night, a nice touch both for fans wishing to sing along, and also for the hearing impaired.
I’ve seen several permeations of the band over the years, and though the lineup has always shuffled a bit, the current crew have mostly been in the mix for a number of years. One notable absence, however, is the departure of bassist and founding member Michael Ivins, who left the band in 2021, and, along with frontman Wayne Coyne and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd, had been a constant in the decades of shows I’ve attended. This configuration seems to work well though, with two drummers, extra keyboards, and tons of supporting crew to help make all of the props and visuals work, like the enormous inflatable pink robots which appeared at the start of the set, and a were inflated and deflated a few more times throughout the evening.
With so many great and popular tracks, I’ve probably seen most all of Yoshimi played over the years, but never in release order and at one time. It holds up tremendously and the band sounded pitch-perfect throughout, with favorites like opener “Fight Test,” the title track, “All We Have Is Now,” and, of course, crossover hit “Do You Realize??” (for which they decorated the stage with a giant rainbow) all eliciting huge, joyous singalongs. In typical Lips fashion, the band filled the room with confetti, gigantic balloons, lasers, and projected images, plus a whole lot of glowing, psychedelic lights, and even Coyne seemed to be feeling extra nostalgic, chatting in between about past tours, the legacy of the album, and how much the audience means to the long-running band. And as the Yoshimi portion of the night came to a close, they promised another set following an intermission, encouraging fans to take a break in between, with that backstage voice once again appearing on the PA to offer a countdown.
After perusing the merch table (they actually had some extremely cool Yoshimi anniversary merch) and grabbing a drink, I took my seat once more in the balcony, curious to see what set two would be, especially coming off of the high of seeing such an iconic album played in full. Though they immediately took it back to 1993 breakout “She Don’t Use Jelly,” the oldest song of the set and arguably the single that first put the band on the mainstream radar, the rest of the back half of the night would be a retrospective of their post-millennium (I’m lumping in 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, though it technically came a year earlier) output, yet another testament to how Yoshimi and their other mid-career work so fundamentally altered their trajectory. I was particularly excited to hear a couple cuts from 2020’s American Head, my favorite Flaming Lips album in a while, as well as a rendition of their popular cover of Madonna’s “Borderline.”
Though there wasn’t a ton of banter between the band, save for Drozd’s signature interjections and thanks between songs, in a particularly candid moment, Wayne admitted before one song that he couldn’t recall the lyrics, only to realize he could simply turn around and look at the gigantic screen projecting them behind him. And ahead of “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion,” kicking off a generous encore after the shorter second set, he told the story of a bird he used to hold while performing, which he misplaced in the band’s warehouse, before introducing a new remote-controlled bird that a stage tech proceeded to fly around the venue. At one point during the set, Coyne did perform from within his signature bubble, though he remained on stage rather than bringing it into the crowd- I’m not sure if that’s the new norm for the show, or a Ryman safety concern.
Ending the night, and in a fitting compliment to Yoshimi, the band played three songs from The Soft Bulletin, finishing out, of course, with “Race for the Prize,” during which Coyne carried around a giant “FUCK YEAH NASHVILLE” balloon- a show staple in recent years- as confetti rained down. I’ve seen them do this a few times before, and it never gets old; such a cool, memorable and epic way to conclude this one-of-a-kind performance.
While I can admit that seeing a Flaming Lips show over and over might have some diminishing returns as far as the visual magic- it has evolved over the years, but you still kind of broadly know what to expect- it’s the strength of the songs, the good vibes, and the heart that still fuels the magic of its essence, and nothing could better energize that experience than nostalgia, particularly for millennials like myself who are starting to see albums turn 20 that we grew up loving. Coupled with the inherent magic of The Ryman, and that’s a recipe for an all-timer. Long live The Flaming Lips!
All photos by Mary-Beth Blankenship.
One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 2
In the Morning of the Magicians
Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell
Are You a Hypnotist??
Do You Realize??
All We Have Is Now
Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia)
She Don’t Use Jelly
Silver Trembling Hands
Always There, In Our Hearts
Flowers of Neptune 6
Assassins of Youth
Borderline (Madonna cover)
Pompeii Am Götterdämmerung
My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion
Feeling Yourself Disintegrate
A Spoonful Weighs a Ton
Race for the Prize