In the current American music lexicon, The Flaming Lips have become synonymous with festivals.
Charting the course to this synergy-soaked point begins decades after the trio formed in Oklahoma City and developed a cult following, mostly with the indie/art crowd, for brilliant albums and raucous live shows. Perhaps this path to their current status began in the pre-dawn hours at Bonaroo in 2002, when the Lips took a wrecking ball to the jam-band paradigm when the band's sensory-overload show -- complete with confetti, video, dancers in animal suits and copious amounts of fake blood -- produced a peak-fest for all the night trippers and forced an entire scene to take notice. Another mile-marker came during 2004's Coachella, when frontman Wayne Coyne moved atop the crowd in a giant plastic bubble, providing the most publicized photo for an event many music pundits consider the biggest and best among the current roster of annual festivals. Halloween weekend last year, the Lips mercifully revived the currently impotent concept of music-as-statement at the Vegoose festival, where they closed their set by covering Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," the tune's theme illustrated by a kaleidoscopic montage that shone light on murky issues of violence and greed.
"We've always tried to play shows that are just barely contained, to put on a big spectacle that gets everyone involved," Lips bassist Michael Ivins says during a recent phone interview from his home in northern Kentucky. "The festival format is conducive to that. It's a different mood, as people are hanging out together all day and all night, often camping. There's more freedom, a chance to get out of your head a little bit and just let go."
The popularity of The Flaming Lips at festivals is indicative of the increased popularity of festivals themselves in recent years.
"I think we're catching up with the festival culture in Europe, where it's been a big part of the musical culture for 30 or 40 years now," Ivins says. "You pay for one ticket and get to see a bunch of different bands. It really took off here with what used to be the jam-bands. But that scene was really just a crowd of people that are really just fans of music. That embrace all kinds of music. That don't really identify themselves with one style. That won't respond to pressure to, 'Dress this way. Act this way. Listen to this type of music.'"
The Lips' style is difficult to identify as well. Their studio work, dating back to their self-released, self-titled debut in 1984, has always shared traits of melodic ingenuity and ambient, abstract songwriting applied to an adventurous production philosophy. Ivins considers long-time producer Dave Fridmann "a hand-in-hand, integral part of the process," the studio an instrument unto itself and the band a production team, one in which members often switch instrumentation and roles. Writing credits are shared, and individuals (Steven Drozd, Ivins and Coyne) are not identified by what they play.
Their studio work has become increasingly complex and innovative, especially beginning with 1997's Zaireeka (Warner Brothers). This summer, they released the superb At War With The Mystics, an album certainly informed by the current ennui, but a work that's much deeper than a simple rant against the Bush's administration, the Iraq war and the religious right. It's more universal than that. The Lips paint their own picture of the world, applying coats of Day Glo over the drab and mundane like maniacal Merry Pranksters.
Sure, At War With The Mystics is subversive (as "The W.A.N.D. (The Will Always Negates Defeat)" points out, "We got the power now motherf--ers"). Sure, it's political. But there are many other levels to be explored as well.
"Some songs, like 'Haven't Got a Clue,' to which people are hanging various labels and interpretations, aren't really about Bush or politics per se," Ivins says. "We're looking at the individual condition, and expressing the human condition. What does it mean to be a person going about your life, living with other people and animals and the environment around you. How do you deal with all that stuff?"
Here are a couple of ways: Create a cosmic, supernatural sound. Or for us mortals, go to a festival, immerse yourself into the Voodoo experience and see the Flaming Lips. -- Frank Etheridge
5:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m. Sun., Oct. 29
Back for the first time in more than a year, the Drive-By Truckers roll into town for a gig at the Voodoo Festival and a benefit Saturday night at Tipitina's. It's been a good year for the Truckers. They did a great opening stint for Son Volt and one for the Black Crowes. The band won duo/group of the year from the Americana Awards in Nashville. And they put out a new record, A Blessing and A Curse, which shows their sound evolving without sacrificing the power of their rock 'n' roll or great songwriting.
The Drive-By Truckers started in the mid-'90s as a hard-driving rock 'n' roll band. Guitarists and songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley had kicked around in bands for years before getting the Truckers together in Athens, Ga. Their first records had crunching guitars and songs about people and characters they knew. Their approach was reminiscent of Molly Hatchet and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and this came to the forefront in their double album Southern Rock Opera. There were songs about the rise and fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd as well as lyrics dealing with what it meant to grow up in the South in the '70s. Their music had great nuance making deeper statements still rocking so hard they could peel paint. The Southern Rock Opera earned them well-deserved press and their next two CDs were filled with the same themes of growing up Southern, dealing with the multiple legacies of such complexities, and the choices one is forced to make in those situations. The latest CD, A Blessing and A Curse, continues these themes while mostly toning down the three guitars played by Hood, Cooley and Jason Isbel, but not entirely, as evidenced in the binge-gone-wrong song "Aftermath, USA."
The last time the Truckers played in town was Friday, Aug. 26, 2005. It was their usual loud, in your face, kick-ass rock show. Little did anyone know what the future might hold. For many, it was the last show they saw in New Orleans before Katrina hit, the deluge flowed, and our lives changed forever. Seeing the Drive-By Truckers is always a cathartic experience, but these sets will be special -- another lens by which people can look back at how far we've come and look forward to places we need to go. But besides that, right now there may not be a better rock 'n' roll band on the planet. -- David Kunian
5:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m. Sat., Oct. 28
From the back of his tour bus in Columbus, Ohio, Shooter Jennings sounds like a cheerful man. "I'm just hangin' out on the bus, with my brand new dog. No, that's my girlfriend. She's just acting like one. I wish we had a dog, though. How are you doin'?" He's in a pretty great mood for someone whose latest album, Electric Rodeo (Universal South, 2006) is composed of hard-life tunes like the title track that tell the familiar story of the road-weary rocker ("All I know is a guitar and a bottle").
"Well, when I was a kid, I didn't understand why 'Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down' was such a good song, because I didn't live it," he says. "There is something to that, having to have sorrow under your belt. And there's a lot of influence here from other artists. A lot of my influence on that record was Hank Jr. But it's all true -- even if we haven't got there yet, it's right around the corner for us."
Whether or not Jennings is looking forward to paying that hefty price of fame, he deserves it -- the fame part, anyway. Electric Rodeo contains more good ol' boy badassery than a pickup truck full of Pabst Blue Ribbon. You can practically hear the smoke hissing off the fiddle strings on the manic "Manifesto No. 2." And blues legend Tony Joe White lends his unmistakable, nightmarish growl to the thumping "Alligator Chomp" -- an apocalyptic, allegorical song about war and hatred between animals in a swamp that ranks with some of White's weirdest, most haunting rock numbers. The band presented the song to White to record his vocal track in the studio on the spot. Jennings says, "Some fourteen-year-old-kid wrote in to ask what it was about, and we told him it was about the assassination of hope. I loved the concept. I love the song. It's so not ready for radio."
It's probably not -- but that's not a bad thing. This is pure country in the best outlaw, boot-stomping vein, and Shooter's dad, of course, headed up the boy's club that wrote the book on that. In recent years, factions in Nashville have tried to bring rowdy back to the table and cut through the poppy treacle of acts like Faith Hill with dive-bar hellraisers of a sort, like Gretchen Wilson, but you can't mass-produce the kind of down-home rock Jennings obviously has coursing through his veins. It doesn't hurt that he's the progeny of Waylon and Jessi Colter -- whose name he has tattooed on his forearm. But Shooter's guitar-driven Southern rock has a wry wit running through it that keeps it honest, and that's where he shines like the reflection of neon in a puddle of spilled beer. It's not enough to just write a song that has a dog, rain, prison, a truck and your mama in it to get a real country song; these days, it's having a sense of humor about the whole country template that makes it all fall into place. Love Jennings for songs like the title track, which echoes his dad's "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" uncannily, or love him for the hilarious "Aviators," which has a stoic Southern man apologizing for a long list of misdeeds, including hitting on his girlfriend's mom and shooting her dog ("If our love won't work now, darling, maybe later / you can't see my tears behind my aviators"), but if you are a red-blooded American with rock 'n' roll in your heart, it's for sure that love him you will. -- Alison Fensterstock
4:30 p.m. - 5:30 p.m. Sat., Oct. 28