Beck/The Flaming Lips : New York Beacon Theater unexpectedly bittersweet treat...

A sheep is dancing with an angel down the Beacon’s opulent staircase. At the bar, Buckethead is doing tequila shots with a suspiciously blonde Meg White. A group of hobbits are queuing for the loo. None of them are real, of course, because it’s Halloween. But with The Flaming Lips in the house… well, you can never be too sure.

Because every night is fancy dress night for the Lips. Tonight, they appear onstage in the company of a dozen humanoids in animal costumes. The creatures dance and wave torches while Wayne Coyne does his gentlemanly best to make this gig into a cross between a children’s party and a cult communion. His fake blood/puppet routine is wearing a bit thin, but Wayne spices things up by taking birthday dedications from the audience and kicking inflatable balls off the edge of the stage. It’s all perfectly absurd, but coupled with the exalted beauty of songs like ‘Are You A Hypnotist??’ and ‘A Spoonful Weighs A Ton’, the circus-like atmosphere takes on a magical and life-affirming quality. As always, the Lips tread an inspired line between wise and infantile, joyful and profound, while Wayne radiates goodwill like a deranged Santa/Christ figure. “We play every song like it’s an encore!” he declares, picking up a dry ice machine and blasting himself in the face. When they finish after only five songs, it’s like the plug’s been pulled on everyone’s carousel.

The party takes a plunge when Beck steps onstage. Alone, under a single spotlight, he doles out melancholy with the gut-wrenching ‘Guess I’m Doing Fine’ and ‘Bottle of Blues’ before launching into a beautifully haunting version of the Lips‘ ‘Do You Realize??’ Then the lights come up, and the Olklahoman trio themselves appear behind a screen, poised to take on backing band duties.

Oddly, their presence feels more like an intrusion than the brilliant collaboration it should be. After all the artifice of Beck‘s previous incarnations, it’s a pleasure to see him stripped of pretention, dressed like a shlub in an untucked shirt, baring his soul. You can’t help but wish he’d play it this straight more often, especially as his set focuses so narrowly on the almost unrelentingly morose ‘Sea Change’ songs. It’s unfortunate that at his most honest and minimal Beck still feels the need for gimmickry, even if it is in the spectacular form of the Flaming Lips.

Admittedly, it’s hard to beat the sight of Wayne Coyne and Beck waltzing across the stage and slapping each other’s arses. But they seem to have different agendas. Beck is patently not having a good time (when he cuts up and does a half-hearted robot dance, he apologises for it being “a bit wet”); while Wayne is having so much fun he threatens to upstage the headline attraction – punching the air and jumping around during even the saddest songs. The Lips just don’t do grim.

Somewhere during the ultra-sparse ‘Round The Bend’, people begin sinking into their seats as though a poisonous gas is being emitted from the stage. Some even begin shouting requests for Lynryd Skynyrd’s ’70s FM radio atrocity ‘Freebird’ before Beck finally administers emergency CPR in the form of ‘Where It’s At’. It’s during the encore that Beck proves he hasn’t completely lost his knack for glib showmanship, emerging in a white suit festooned with fairy lights and moonwalking through a brilliantly rousing ‘Devil’s Haircut’. If only he had slipped a few tricks like this in sooner, the evening might not have been such an unexpectedly bittersweet treat.

April Long