Friday, July 23, 2010

Arcade Fire

In June, I was invited to Montreal to interview Arcade Fire and write their promotional bio. This is not that bio. These are just random thoughts and observations.

Win Butler’s fortune cookie states the obvious: “You are the kind of person who will go places.” It’s mid-June 2010, and the Arcade Fire front man proudly displays this premonitory phrase for his bandmates, who are taking a dinner break while rehearsing in a Montreal warehouse the size of an airplane hangar. They are preparing the stage show that will find them going plenty of places for much of the next year, promoting their third album The Suburbs (out on Aug. 2).

In the past, Arcade Fire has always underplayed their own popularity by playing smaller venues; while touring 2007’s Neon Bible, they opted to play three shows at Toronto’s Massey Hall, when the local promoter insisted they could have sold out the Air Canada Centre. In 2010, there’s no point in modesty. The first leg of the tour, before the album was even released, found them playing European festivals where they headlined over Jay-Z. Two dates headlining Madison Square Gardens in New York City are booked for mid-August.

These days, this kind of global domination isn’t that shocking for Canadian artists, especially a band whose debut album, 2004’s Funeral, was named the No. 1 album of the past decade by Rolling Stone. What’s unusual about Arcade Fire is that they’ve achieved this while trying to maintain a maximum distance from celebrity culture, mainstream radio and mega-marketing.

Six weeks before The Suburbs arrives in stores, the band is still mastering the vinyl version of the album, proofing artwork and learning how to play the songs live. No one in the band is on Twitter. Not a single ad has appeared anywhere. Not a single journalist—nor the band’s record label—has heard the finished product. Thousands of local fans heard the new songs before anyone else, at live shows in Montreal, Sherbrooke and Toronto in the past month—including a free show on June 9 in a suburban mall parking lot in Montreal, announced on mere hours’ notice, that drew almost 10,000 people.

The outside world is clamoring for details—even ones that the band aren’t trying to keep secret. During rehearsal, the band’s management gets an email from a Rolling Stone fact-checker, asking questions about recent gigs and new songs. Among other details, the fact-checker wants to confirm that the new song “Rococo” is, in fact, “slow-burning.”

The Arcade Fire camp—most of the crew and staff consist of old friends, some dating back to high school—all appear relaxed, a welcome contrast to the anxiety that accompanied the release of Neon Bible. This time, the only real pressure the band feels is internal; no matter how many external accolades they receive—from journalists, audiences, or musical heroes—Arcade Fire have never been convinced that they’ve managed to meet their own standards. The best is always yet to come. There is always work to be done. And the only people any one of them really wants to impress are the seven other musicians on stage every night.

Guitarist and bassist Tim Kingsbury had driven me to rehearsal from his new house in Point St. Charles, a slowly gentrifying neighbourhood on the south side of Montreal’s Lachine Canal. In his dishevelled car, five CDs are stuffed into the passenger door pocket: AC/DC, Jackson 5, the Pretenders, fellow Montreal band Sunset Rubdown, and Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible. The latter, he said, is homework before the tour.

Every Arcade Fire member has bought property in Montreal in recent years. Certainly nothing ostentatious, despite the fact that the fiercely independent band is, to some degree, rolling in dough; they’re financially secure enough to announce recently that they would match up to $1 million of their fans’ contributions to Haitian relief, which has been a pet cause since well before this year’s earthquake (founding member and multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne is the daughter of Haitian immigrants). “Take our money, please,” Win would urge an audience in Quebec City a month later.

At the warehouse, the stage is set up in the middle of the cavernous room, surrounded by black curtains. There is everything they need for a festival gig: a full lighting truss, a video screen and stadium-size sound system. Despite the production, rehearsal is as casual as it would be in the living room of bandleaders (and married couple) Win and Régine, where some of The Suburbs was recorded. The band is unselfconscious about mucking around, pulling songs apart and trying different arrangements, even if it leaves the crew—who are supposed to be rehearsing cues—a bit befuddled.

Many of the new songs have never been performed together by the eight people in the room now. The song “Empty Room” fades out on the album; here, they decide to segue into “Modern Man” by having Régine hold a high note in F-sharp minor while they shift into the key of A. They try a choral approach for two songs: one from Neon Bible, one a sombre cover of recently deceased garage rocker Jay Reatard (“Oh It’s Such a Shame”), who was scheduled to open for Arcade Fire this year. At one point everyone drops their instruments and stands in a circle to arrange harmonies. For a band that built their name on bombast, it’s a remarkably delicate moment.

It’s not incongruous with the arguably more mature Arcade Fire that can be heard on The Suburbs. They’ve dialled down the intensity that fuelled their earlier work; Win jokes that they wanted to write some “music to do dishes to.” But even hearing them rehearse an older number such as “Neighbourhood #2 (Laika)”—a song that was once performed live with motorcycle helmets used as particularly violent percussion—it now sounds older, wiser, not as strident. There is a quieter strength at work, yet no less forceful.

Everything now has space to breathe; for all the glorious urgency of earlier material, it could also be claustrophobic. Part of what was so frustrating about seeing Arcade Fire back in 2004—both before and after the release of Funeral—was that they sounded so much bigger than they actually were. Instruments would break. The sound mix would be muddled. The band wasn’t reaching the intensity that an often visibly agitated Win wanted. Audiences didn’t always understand. They could look and sound constricted, like watching professional soccer players trying to play on a basketball court.

Now the music has found its home: less restless, less like it has something to prove, but no less eager or hungry to live up to their own high expectations. Most importantly, the new material is considerably more welcoming than the weight-of-the-world fog that marred some of Neon Bible.

And why wouldn’t it be? Despite their deadly serious reputation, the members of Arcade Fire are, understandably, quite happy. They’ve carved out considerable success on their own terms. They feel like a family. They’ve been able to shine a light on their own projects and those of their peers (drummer Jeremy Gara was a key part of recent masterpieces by Owen Pallett and Snailhouse).

Furthermore, they’ve been able to put their money where their mouth is, by helping kick-start a new Haitian foundation called Kenpe, and by funnelling one dollar from every concert ticket they sold over the past three years (and the current tour) to Partners in Health, which focuses on community partnership solutions to poverty and health-care issues in the developing world. During the 2008 U.S. election, they headlined two pro-Obama rallies in North Carolina; the Democrats took the state for the first time in over 30 years, by a thin margin. On Obama’s inauguration day, Arcade Fire played the volunteer and staff party; they met the President for a photo op, and Win gave him a copy of George Orwell’s Why I Write.

Sitting in Tim’s home-studio office the next morning, a photo of the band with Barack and Michelle Obama is one of the only clues that a member of Arcade Fire lives here. Tim sets me up with an unmastered version of The Suburbs and leaves me alone for the rest of the morning.

I actually need most of the morning to listen to The Suburbs all the way through three times—the album is 63 minutes long. This concerns multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry, who confessed at rehearsal that the length is the one thing he doesn’t like about an album he’s otherwise very proud of—and the latter statement doesn’t come easily from this workaholic and perfectionist, who devotes most of his non-Arcade Fire time to his project with violinist Sarah Neufeld, Bell Orchestre.

Parry says there were many discussions about the track list and the format. Should some songs come out on an EP? As stand-alone singles not found on the album? That seemed to work for Belle and Sebastian, the Smiths and, uh, the Beatles. Ultimately they decided to throw it all on there, and, despite Parry’s reservations, the album doesn’t suffer for it. The Suburbs is dynamic and deliciously satisfying. Besides, the kids these days are going to listen to MP3s out of order anyway, right? Or at least one side of a double vinyl set at a time?

As always with Arcade Fire, “the kids” figure prominently on The Suburbs, not just because Win and Régine are writing about wasted time in the suburbs of their youth. This time out, however, there is a different tone. In the past they would rally the children, as on “Wake Up,” “Power Out” or “No Cars Go,” and now there’s a bit of a sneer: chastising “the kids with their arms folded tight” (“Month of May”) and, on “Rococo,” practically mocking: “Let’s go downtown and talk to the modern kids / They will eat right out of your hand / Using great big words that they don’t understand.”

Those aren’t the only times Win—who just turned 30—sounds a bit like a crotchety grandpa: “We Used to Wait” is a fond remembrance of antiquated days when lovelorn teenagers wrote letters while separated for summer vacations. There is no romance in texting, it’s true. Thankfully, there is no verse about how far the narrator had to walk to school, and in what adverse weather conditions.

The Suburbs is definitely a concept album: we know this because the word “suburbs” appears in almost every song. It’s a rich theme, encompassing ennui of youth, wasted time, wasted potential, technological transformation, urban planning, and dreams of escape. But after “The Suburbs,” “Suburban War,” “Sprawl 1,” “Sprawl 2” and “Wasted Hours”—some of which share not just themes, but specific lines—it’s easy to feel trapped on a cul-de-sac.

Amidst the suburban angst, there are touching laments for disappearing landscapes—which sound less grandfatherly than they do like the legitimately apocalyptic anxieties of a potential parent: “This city’s changed so much since I was a little child / Pray to God I won’t live to see the death of everything that’s wild.” The title track asks, “So can you understand / Why I want a daughter while I'm still young? / I want to hold her hand / And show her some beauty / Before all this damage is done.”

There is no resignation, however. There is a pointed call for responsibility, ala Inauguration-Day Obama: “I know it's heavy, I know it ain't light / But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?” Apathy isn’t just a crutch, it’s a dishonest denial: “Some people say we’ve already lost/ but they’re afraid to pay the cost.”

The Suburbs is dense with musical majesty. It doesn’t sound like either Funeral or Neon Bible, even though it’s quite obviously the same band. The rousing anthems are largely absent (Régine’s “Empty Room” and the fuzzy punk of “Month of May” being notable exceptions); now Arcade Fire is much more selective in applying its intensity. A sense of economy—perhaps the influence of labelmates Spoon or tourmates LCD Soundsystem—is evident throughout. The Springsteen influence this time out is more “Jungleland” (sparse, epic balladry) than “Born to Run” (all-or-nothing barnburners). New wave textures colour mid-tempo pop songs with stuttered rhythms. And as a left turn right before the album closes, Régine’s “Sprawl 2” sounds like Swedish reggae—in a good way.

You can take all of this with several grains of salt, if you like: the band members are friends of mine--even if I've barely seen them in recent years--and I’ve been a huge fan, though not an uncritical one, since I first heard a cassette demo in December 2002. But The Suburbs is thoroughly satisfying, in ways that I almost don’t even expect anymore from my favourite artists.

In 2004, just before Funeral came out, Régine told me: “I’m always at zero trying to get to square one. For me, I haven’t achieved anything yet. This is a start.” As beloved as that album is now, The Suburbs trumps it on almost every level.

Later that day, after a full day of interviews, the band and crew assemble for a barbecue at a friend’s house in a lush, green neighbourhood near Parc Laurier. It’s partially a belated birthday party for Win and one of the production staff, and partially an album-wrap party before the European tour.

The Butler brothers play backyard basketball with their friend’s seven-year-old son. Tim and the band’s video director Vincent Morisset talk birdwatching. The Canadians try to explain to the Americans what proroguing Parliament entails. Rock’n’roll decadence this is not.

When the birthday cakes come out, Régine leaps to the piano, instantly intuiting the key everyone’s agreed on for "Happy Birthday." The singer of one of the most critically acclaimed bands of the last 10 years extinguishes his birthday candles by obeying chants to “suck! suck! suck!” Win then makes a brief toast, congratulating everyone on the culmination of a year’s work.

This calls for another celebratory song that everyone knows—except that no one knows what that should be. “What does everyone know?” someone mumbles. “Christmas!” comes the suggestion. “Silent Night” it is, then, even on this warm summer night, in a town with a crucifix on a mountaintop.

Of course, that doesn’t seem quite triumphant enough—so Will, a transplanted American, strikes up “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” To a rousing, laughing chorus of “glory, glory, hallelujah,” the army of Arcade Fire raise their glasses and prepare for a triumphant year.

Earlier interviews with the band on this site are (from 2004) here and here and here, as well as (from 2007) here and here and here.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Jimmy Cliff

I’ve interviewed plenty of people I consider to be legends, but I’m quite sure I’ve never interviewed someone who has sold over 20 million records. I had the pleasure of interviewing reggae legend Jimmy Cliff for Massey Hall’s Performance magazine; here are excerpts from the piece and my full conversation with Mr. Cliff.

Who knew he was a Green Day fan? Also: note his odd, rambling answer to my innocuous final question.

Jimmy Cliff plays Massey Hall in Toronto tonight, July 19.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doesn’t reach beyond its namesake genre very often. Which is why Jimmy Cliff, inducted in March 2010, is one of only two reggae artists (so far) to be deemed worthy of inclusion alongside the likes of the Beatles, James Brown, Ray Charles, AC/DC and hundreds of other legends.

The list of international reggae superstars can be boiled down to two names: Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. It was Jimmy Cliff who starred in the movie The Harder They Come, which introduced Jamaican reggae culture to the world. That film’s soundtrack—dominated by Cliff classics like the title track, “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” and “Many Rivers to Cross”—was the best selling reggae album ever, until the 1984 release of Bob Marley’s posthumous greatest hits album, Legend. And it was Cliff who first discovered Marley as a hungry and confident 16-year-old performer, auditioning in a rum bar in 1962.

Cliff himself was only 14 at the time, and had just scored his first local hit with a song called “Hurricane Hattie,” which reached #1 in Jamaica. Cliff grew up in the district of Somerton in rural Jamaica, where he shared a house with eight siblings, and started singing in church. His father brought him to Kingston at age 12 to attend a technical school, studying TV and radio and trying to find someone to record his songs. One day he walked in Leslie Kong’s shop, a combination ice cream parlour, cosmetics boutique, and record store. Kong wanted his shop to be stocked with exclusive product, and this young, enterprising youth convinced him to start making records—starting with Cliff’s.

In 1964, Cliff made another key connection, when young Jamaican entrepreneur Chris Blackwell invited him to take part in the Jamaican contingent of ska singers for the 1964 World Fair in New York City. This peaked the interest of American record companies, who released ska compilations following the fair; one was co-produced by Curtis Mayfield and featured a couple of Cliff numbers.

At Blackwell’s suggestion, Cliff moved to the U.K., which was the largest market for Jamaican music off the island. Four years later, Cliff would release his debut for Blackwell’s label, Island Records, and score a huge hit in Brazil, “Waterfall,” which prompted a short stay there.

After extensive touring in South America, Cliff scored an international hit with “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” which served as his introduction to North America. Cliff then returned home to Jamaica, where he started developing younger artists, and scored another hit with a cover of Cat Stevens’ song “Wild World.”

Then came the pivotal moment in Cliff’s career, when he was tapped to star in The Harder They Come, a 1971 movie about a rural Jamaican trying to navigate the bullet-ridden, drug-infested alleys of the music business. The film became a cult hit around the world, offering many people their first glimpses of reggae culture in Jamaica. Cliff credits the film not only with the commercial height of his career—the soundtrack has sold millions of copies—but with the international reach of reggae itself.

The Harder They Come—which was transformed into a Broadway musical recently—marked Cliff’s commercial peak, but his recording career never slowed down, scoring hits in the ’80s (“Reggae Night,” with Kool and the Gang) and the ’90s (“I Can See Clearly Now, from the film Cool Runnings) and travelling the world. Now 62, he divides his time between Paris and Jamaica, where he recently built a studio and finished work on his latest album, Existence, with young Jamaican studio musicians (who will also comprise his touring band).

Jimmy Cliff
April 22, 2010

To my knowledge, you haven’t played a full show in Toronto in eight years.

That’s one of the reasons I’m looking forward to it. They are great fans of Jamaican music, but also my brand of Jamaican music. Toronto has always been interesting and important place for music in general, and for reggae music. I remember on my first North American tour, when my movie had just made a big impact all over the world, what the media said in Canada kind of filtered through to the rest of North America. That makes Canada particularly Toronto, very important.

Did you know any of the reggae music coming out of Toronto at the time? Or people like Jackie Mittoo or Leroy Sibbles or Willie Williams, who all moved to Toronto?

I knew all of those artists before they moved to Toronto. We have always known that Toronto is a very important place.

It’s also one of the first places that The Harder They Come musical opened. Was it not the first place it opened after London?

Yes, it was. I came not for the opening of the musical, but I did some promotion before the musical opened there.

How did you feel about the musical? Was it something you ever envisioned happening?

I didn’t really envision it as a musical, so I was pleasantly surprised at the way it turns out. I saw the opening in London. I was surprised because I did the movie and I had not really aware that much about the power of the music. So having seen it in a musical, I see it in another dimension.

A lot has happened since the last time you toured. Along with the musical, you received a doctorate, an order of merit, and last month an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Obviously that means a lot, but does it mean as much to you as the fact that you’ve sold millions of albums that are in people’s homes?

I’ve always wanted to touch the world with my art. It’s what I do. I have achieved a good portion of that. I’m an established artist internationally, but I have not done all that I have set out to do. I’m quite happy with what I’ve achieved so far.

What are your goals yet to be fulfilled?

I have not made any #1 albums on the Billboard Charts. I have not made any #1 singles on the Billboard Charts. I am playing halls like Massey Hall and theatres, but I am not playing arenas and stadiums. (laughs) So I still have goals!

You don’t want to rest on your laurels.

Not at all! Those things I just named out there are really things that I still intend to achieve.

And you have a new album to help you do that.

I’m very happy with this album. There are two albums that I’ve put out that I feel I’ve been chasing over the years. I feel like now I have caught up with those two albums and surpassed them with this album. Those two albums I’m talking about are of course the soundtrack to the movie and the album Wonderful World Beautiful People.

So this is your best record in 30 years?

I’m feeling like that, yes. It’s difficult to say concretely. Every new album I make, I aim to make it better than the last one. Songs are like a woman giving birth to children: you love all your children, but the last one gets the most attention.

Usually because it’s the loudest!

Yes! (laughs)

Do you still live in France or are you back in Jamaica?

I used to be based in England, and after I left there Jamaica became my base. Having said that, there are places where I’ve spent a lot of time like here in France. I spend maybe three quarters of the time in Jamaica—not straight—and another quarter of the time in France, but on and off.

What appeals to you about France?

It’s a good music city. You get creativity from all over the continent of Africa and Asia. There is a mixture of cultures here that makes it interesting.

When did you first get the sense that reggae became and international music, that it wasn’t just Jamaican music anymore? It was embraced around the world—not just England or the U.S.—and lots of local cultures had their own takes on it. When did you notice that happening?

I think it was when The Harder They Come came out. Prior to that, there were people like myself, Desmond Dekker and quite a few others who had hits in Europe, particularly in England, and also in North America. But people had not seen it as a new music form. It was like novelty hits. When The Harder They Come came out, people said, ‘Oh, here is a new culture, a new music making a big impact on the world.’ That was the turning point.

Reggae is so indelibly part of the culture—when I think of Jamaican culture the first thing I think of is reggae music—and yet the way the music has travelled around the world, it’s become very independent of Jamaican culture, the way people use reggae in their own music.

I think it has become like a lot of other popular music forms, like rock’n’roll, or jazz, R&B and country. Whatever part of the world people adopted it to their own culture, they put their own experiences in it and it turns out a little different from what the authentic ones are, and it’s great.

I notice you’re playing some theatres on this tour, but you’re also playing Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, diverse festivals with a lot of young audiences.

Oh, how exciting, huh? I’m really looking forward to that. One of the festivals I’ve been doing in Europe, people who have seen the movie brought their children, so when I look into the audience I see different generations. Some people say, ‘My parents listened to this music and that’s how I became a fan.’ But I have not really had that experience in North America. Every generation got their own take on it, and why they like it.

You’ve always been about the uplift and about the positive and you want your music to reflect that. What do you say to people who find it hard to be positive in times like this?

Even more in times like this do people need this kind of music. We want to be able to appreciate our own lives, to appreciate living in this time of so much uncertainty: psychologically, spiritually, economically. People do need this kind of music. No matter how difficult you may find it to be positive, you always want something to make you feel good, to not stay in that state of mind all the time.

At the same time, The Harder They Come is not a happy story, and that’s what you’re best known for.

Not at all a happy story, no. However, it gives one hope even though my character didn’t fare so well toward the end. At the same time, it’s still a story with a national universal theme. You still find a young boy from Quebec or wherever coming to Toronto, the big city, and saying, ‘I want to make my fortune here.’ The choice my character took led him down a road where it was a dead end.

The new album is called Existence. That seems like a broad theme.

It’s a big heavy title! It is our existence on this planet at this time: ecologically, economically, spiritually, socially, all the aspects of our lives of living on this planet and beyond. People are starting to doubt religion and looking for the reality of life and people are not finding it in organized religion. All of these aspects on the planet and beyond, people are really concerned about them.

What role do you think music plays in a culture that is turning away from religion?

It depends again on what the artist is putting out there for the people. I am still putting out music with a positive twist, because the reality is that we always have these two choices in life. The positive and the negative do exist, and it’s how we balance it that gives us some sanity. I try to do that in my music. I’m coming out of a situation where I could have taken any road, and I managed to see the other way and choose that way and balance it with the disagreeable way I could have taken. And if I bring that to the lives of people, hopefully they will find some comfort in it, some direction.

You’ve collaborated with many people over the years. Who are you working with on this new record?

I am working with a young set of Jamaican musicians, who are very creative. They grew up listening to my music, and now they say they have something they can contribute to me. That made it special to me. I am going on tour with them. Who would I like to work with? For me, the way I look at it is if the vibe is right. On my last album I did some things like Sting and Annie Lennox and Wyclef Jean and a few other people. It just happened—we were talking and said ‘let’s do something.’ It’s a mutual feeling. I think it works better that way.

These young people, are they artists in their own right, are they studio musicians?

They are studio musicians who have their own band in Jamaica. I picked three from that band and two from that band and one from that band and put all their creative energies together and take them on the road.

What do you see of yourself in these young musicians? You had your first hit at 14, and you were quite bold in stepping up and starting a record label. You were very active very young.

What I see in these young musicians is that they have a lot to offer. They want to offer it to the world internationally. They see me as someone who established myself out there but still very viable and current in this time.

Is there anyone you greatly admire right now in terms of young artists, carrying that kind of positivity and openness that defined your career?

There are a few people in Jamaica. There is this female artist, Queen Ifrica, she is touching on subjects that most artists wouldn’t touch, like incest. She is really empowering young girls, about education and those kind of things. She makes some love songs too, but she really touches social and cultural subjects and empowers young girls to try to make the best of themselves. I appreciate that. [Queen Ifrica plays a free show at Toronto’s Harbourfront on Saturday, July 31, as part of Caribana.] Then there is Tarrus Riley; he is also touching on those kind of subjects. That’s on a local basis. Internationally, there are some rappers that I like. Some R&B people I like. Some rock people; I like the band Green Day. I like Jay-Z because as a rapper he’s been out there and staying on one level of consciousness that I really appreciate. R&B people: Mary J. Blige.

I’m sure you’ll see a lot of younger artists when you play these large festivals with different artists, too.

Definitely, yes.

How old are your youngest kids right now?

I like to make that subject very clear. The subject of children: I look at it from a perspective of the African way. Every mother is a mother; every father is a father.

The way I grew up in my village in Summertown, Jamaica, if I’m on my way to school or on the street out there, and I do something out of order, any mother or any father could catch me and scold me. When I went home, I dared not say anything or I’d get another scolding on top of it. Or, if I need something to take me on to school, a kind word or bus fare—well, we didn’t have buses at that time—or lunch money, the community takes care of everyone. So having grown up with nine of us in one household, and not all of us were from the same mother and father. But we look at each other as brothers and sisters.

So in that sense, I think this is the right concept and I think this is what is missing today, why families are breaking down. Because if I say ‘these are my two children, and these are your two children’ and we look at it that way, it’s not covering the whole situation. I think the old African way where the village takes care of the children, I prefer it that way. I wouldn’t look at my own biological children and say ‘these are my only children.’ I see all the children as my children.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Flaming Lips

The Flaming Lips
July 8, 2010
Molson Ampitheatre, Toronto

I thought I was done with the Flaming Lips. I'd seen them three times in five years; the last was their show at Metropolis in Montreal in 2004, one of the best shows I’d ever seen in my life, the kind that leaves you on a high for at least a week afterward. I thought there was no way I could return and not be comparing it to that experience.

Plus, by then I felt like I'd had enough of the balloons, the confetti, the jaunty space-age pop, Wayne Coyne’s reedy voice, the interminable wait and large letdown that was their sci-fi film project Christmas on Mars, and that supremely annoying “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” on the disappointing 2006 album At War With the Mystics.

And yet there I was, at the corporate beer barn by the lake last night, weeping with tears of joy in my eyes as they encored with “Do You Realize?” amidst a flurry of confetti, visual overload, and the glorious orgy of ridiculousness that has been their calling card for the last decade.

Oddly enough, after returning to their more experimental tendencies on the 2009 album Embryonic—an album that avoids happy pop songs entirely—the Flaming Lips had finally graduated from worst-kept-secret status to full-on stadium rock. Seeing them play for their largest Toronto audience ever, promoting their weirdest album in over a decade, was an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up. Stacking the bill with Spoon made it that much more irresistible.

[I was torn on the Spoon show: I love this band and much of their recorded output, but they’re often stiff on stage. That said, some clever rearrangements and a solid set list drawing mainly from Kill the Moonlight and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga—with added five-piece horn section—did not disappoint.]

The Flaming Lips meant a lot to me between 1999 and 2004. Initially I wasn’t as taken with the 1999 breakthrough The Soft Bulletin as many were at the time—for whatever reason (I think it was lyrical), I preferred its limp sister album, Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs. Nonetheless, I embarked on a road trip to Detroit to see the show with a couple of friends. Though I was expecting some kind of spectacle, I really had no idea what I was in for.

When my friend Tristan and I saw the stagehands wheel out a gong on stage, we placed bets on how many times it would be used: once? five times? Opening with “Race for the Prize,” Wayne Coyne hammered on that gong six times per bar in between verses, triggering flashes of light every time, and foreshadowing the avalanche of lo-fi awesome that was to follow. Coyne was one of the most engaging frontmen I’d ever seen, personable and devoid of any mystique, an idealistic hippie in a white suit who smeared himself in blood and spoke frankly of near-death experiences and the dark demons that haunt us all—and would then sing the next song using a finger-puppet of a nun, its image amplified by a tiny camera placed on the microphone. He was the same performer he is today, although much chattier, and sharing in the same sense of wide-eyed wonder the audience was at the time: “Holy shit, is this actually working? Can a rock show actually be this much fun?

But fun is only half of it. If the Flaming Lips were simply all smiles and good times, they’d be the Barenaked Ladies—or Bananas in Pyjamas. While Coyne is an undeniably upbeat person, he’s not immune to the shit of the world—whether it’s political forces beyond your control, or personal tragedy that’s in your face every day (sometimes in your own band, in the case of Steven Drozd’s heroin addiction). And so while a song like “Do You Realize?” may sound saccharine sweet, it’s actually about eventually losing everyone and everything you know and coming to terms with that, not by mourning or with denial or self-pity, but by embracing everyday beauty. Both simple beauty—your lover’s eyes—or the extravagance that the Flaming Lips put on for you for two hours, two hours that feel like a magnified memory of your most-treasured childhood birthday party.

The jaded will jeer that all the gimmicky props are somehow infantilizing, a Romper Room for adults. That’s not entirely inaccurate—but so what? It’s a lot more entertaining and imaginative than other rote clichés of rock performance. Wouldn’t it be awesome if I had giant hands that shot laser beams at the mirror balls? And it’s not all love and flowers; the dream states they conjure can be just as dystopian as they are utopian. Anyone who grew up in the ’70s—by which point the counterculturalists had taken control of children’s television programming—can’t help but be thrilled by large-scale psychedelia brought to life, to see surrealism set to stadium rock.

Also: shouldn’t every rock show should begin with the band members emerging from a giant projection of a vagina, with the singer in an amniotic bubble walking over the crowd?

For all the effort they put into projecting their own show outward, the Lips’ message is always about bringing the audience in. Coyne is constantly reminding us, directly and indirectly, that this show is only going to be as fun as we all make it: crossed arms don’t cut it. There are times when his come-hither hand gestures and induced applause could be egotistical; more likely that he wants us to hear ourselves screaming and having a fantastic time.

Watching the Flaming Lips in 2010, it’s a potent reminder of how cathartic this band was earlier this decade—when there was an utter incompetent at the helm, the world was going to shit and little hope in sight. Watching Wayne Coyne’s boundless enthusiasm was so incredibly affirming; long before “yes we can” became a campaign slogan, Coyne’s mission was to put positive energy back into a cynical, despondent world. Every time he raised his arms it was like he was encouraging us to take the power back, that we—the freaks, the lovers, the dreamers—could turn things around. We could win. If this band of underdogs could pull off this spectacle, we could all go home and pull off something equally amazing on our own scale.

The world is still going to shit, of course, even with a smart man in the White House. Maybe that’s why the Lips don’t feel like being so directly inspirational—hence the largely instrumental and freakier, darker abstractions on Embryonic (which added welcome, if dissonant, diversity to the set list).

But they have that impossibly rare quality as performers that leaves you not just excited about the music or about the experience, but about possibilities for you, your lover, your children, your friends, for strangers, for—well, you know, the universe and all that. Dream on, indeed.