October 1999
s m u g
ear candy
by Ben Auburn

Music Against Brain Degeneration
The Mozart Affectation

In the year of Lilith Finale and Riotstock, the First International Music Against Brain Degeneration Revue was more than just welcome, it was necessary. Five acts with little common ground on one bill, a headliner whose most recent recording couldn't be reproduced on stage without a small orchestra, only one freak hit single to be heard - it was an indie package tour more than five years since "indie"'s brief run as a selling point ended. Playing small halls - it didn't quite sell out Boston's 1200+ seat Roxy the MABD by and large preached to the converted, but if I am any indication, it turned muddled believers into full-fledged missionaries.

The tour was organized by the Flaming Lips, whose recent album, The Soft Bulletin, is a masterpiece of orchestrated song and largely irreproducible on stage. But more about their music later. Their genius was in bringing together five bands whose fan bases probably have very little overlap. The risk inherent in this isn't slight -- would the combination of Sebadoh and the Lips make a Cornelius fan turn away? Is the die hard Robyn Hitchcock lover all that interested in the electronica of K records' Iqu (pronounced ICK-ew -- formerly Icu)? How many Lou Barlow aficionados, exactly, care much for the flights of superfancy found on The Soft Bulletin? Ultimately, the tour relied on the open-mindedness of the indie-music-buying-public -- surely SMUG readers see the danger in this proposition.

By and large, then, it was a tour aimed squarely at . . . me. None of the bands involved have earned my Most Favored status - indeed, I went to the show unaware of Iqu, deeply suspicious of Cornelius and defiantly uninterested in Robyn Hitchcock. Being a resident of Boston, I'm aware of the shot-in-the-dark nature of Sebadoh live - we have a Lou complex much like our Babe Ruth complex - and though I'm convinced The Soft Bulletin will be listened to for a long, long time, I wasn't sure how the Lips would translate to the stage*.

Still, it was obvious just by looking at the bill that people like me were the main target -- people who buy new music every Tuesday (new records from all but the tiniest labels are released on Tuesdays, but you knew that); people who'll listen to almost anything once but can tell right away (usually just by looking at the case) if they'll like it; people who, let's face it, are serious music geeks, willing to part with twenty bucks plus nearly half that in "service charges" for a night's worth of exposure to music that some guy you respect thinks you ought to hear.

So how was the show? The show was five and a half hours long. Starting close to promptly at around 8:10 and finishing up at almost 1:30, with DJ sets (and the new Stereolab record) between bands, it was a kind of endurance test. Iqu started off -- in fact, their DJ was playing as we walked in, but who knew. Wayne Coyne of the Lips introduced them, and their short set -- couldn't have been more than 30 minutes -- was good, solid. The combination of stand-up bass, DJ-guitarist-theremin player, and keyboardist was refreshing, though the bass was poorly miked. Sussing out the music-geek audience well: a small camera had been placed on stage, aimed at the turntables, allowing all us geeks to really see what was going on. It was the first of many indications that all my phobias about appearing uncool at rock shows were unimportant, we were being invited to get a closer look, told that detached observation, that hallmark of coolness, wouldn't cut it here.

After Iqu's set, Wayne returned as MC and reminded us to pick up a walkman, if we desired. The show was being broadcast on a small-frequency transmitter, and anyone who wanted to hear it in full stereo -- providing their headphones could out-blare the sound system -- could borrow a portable radio from two guys at a table in the back. There were five hundred to be had, and I wouldn't be surprised if most of them were snagged for the evening.

It should be said that Wayne -- which was how he introduced himself - appears to be the Nicest Guy in Rock, based solely on his MCing and performance with his band. Genial and a little wide-eyed, he was plainly enjoying himself and pleased with how the tour had turned out. He was spied during Iqu's set off to the side, grooving to the band (who he'd had an opportunity to groove to for 20 previous gigs) and tearing into a box of Cheez-Its. Again, there's almost nothing less cool than visibly enjoying yourself at a show; Wayne was showing us the way.

Next came Cornelius, and while you never want your climax to come two-fifths into the story, this time it can't be helped. Their show was the highlight of the evening -- they were tight an precise and really, really rocked. Video was synched to each song-- except when their electronics broke down for one number -- and they never failed to keep the audience's attention; an achievement, as it was only nine o'clock and people were still wandering in. Their chief acts of supreme fabulousness: (1) a drummer who could play increasingly complex drum-and-bass licks while Led-Zepping her way through the rockier segments; (2) the guitarist and bassist both opening the show playing double-necked axes; (3) video for one song that included stop-motion animals getting into a fight and Cornelius himself breaking it up and making them all take a time out. They were tremendous.

So how could Robyn Hitchcock not be a disappointment? In truth, he ought to have opened the show and not Iqu, as his solo-acoustic (and electric) set came off as pretty light-weight. Sebadoh emerged several songs in as his backup band -- a relationship that developed mid-way through the tour, apparently -- and were very nearly professional about the whole thing.

Not so for their own set, which was, as Matt Ashare in the Boston Phoenix aptly put it, their standard "chaos as usual." Barlow seems so desperately to want to be a rock star, yet he has such contempt for people who want to treat rock stars like rock stars that it derails almost every gesture he makes. That, and he sometimes forgets to plug in before he starts playing.

Finally the Lips got on around twelve fifteen. A friend I'd gone to the show with noted that Wayne had yet to take off his pea coat, and it was becoming obvious that he was pretty sick. His vocals on their first number were even more strained than on record, and he was unable to sustain any notes. Despite this, they played their hearts out and were as spontaneous as playing with DAT backing tracks would let them. All drums were prerecorded, as were most everything else except the bass, played by Steven Drozd, and some keyboard and guitar lines played by Michael Ivins. Oh, and the huge gong, bashed by Wayne, that was unmiked and still unbelievably audible.

Wayne gave it his all -- accompanied from time to time by various hand puppets (who took center stage on the video screen courtesy of the small camera up front), huge handfuls of glitter, and some fake blood for the encore. They even managed to reclaim "She Don't Use Jelly" from 90210 et al and fit it into their current ethic.

By one thirty it was all over, and we made our way tiredly home, raving about how satisfying the show was. In truth, it was massively uneven. Cornelius was the only full fledged success, and the dead middle section of Hitchcock and Sebadoh was lengthy. Even the Lips' set didn't quite make sense -- it was never clear why they were playing and singing the parts they were: Ivins' back up vocals were out of tune most of the time, and he played keyboard parts at times when guitars drove the tune, and why was Drozd held to bass for the whole set? Still, the general feeling upon leaving the theater was one of elation, of, more precisely, Hot Shit! Somehow they'd managed to turn a shaky evening into a qualified success. The secret lay in Wayne's general goodnaturedness, and in the canny lineup. Say what you will about any of the bands involved, but they all make smart, slightly unusual music -- even if it's not to your liking, it's never uninteresting.

Rescuing the package tour from the actual "package" of the thing, Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips brought together five bands who only really had in common that they had nothing in common. Here's to the second international Music Against Brain Degeneration Revue -- no matter who's playing, I'll be there.

*Indie-Cred Footnote This was not, truth be told, my first experience with the Flaming Lips live. Shortly after the release of Oh My Gawd . . . the Flaming Lips I saw them at a tiny club in Little Rock, AR. I was mid-teens and not at all prepared for the, well, for the volume of the show it was as loud as anything I've seen before or since. The band was a trio then they'd add a guitarist several years later and shed him again before recording the play-these-four-discs-at-once Zaireeka -- and the bassist had a huge afro, huge, like an eight inch radius (not counting his head) while the guitarist had scary-long wavy black hair and both were backlit by creepy green lights. Combined with the huge amounts of smoke and the extreme loudness, the show was maybe the scariest thing I've ever seen. [take me back]


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