The Vampire Weekend Flaming Lips Experience

By Phillip C. Sunkel IV
Photos By Phillip C. Sunkel IV

Walking out of Sea Park drive taking a left towards St. Augustine Amphitheater I began to contemplate nervously.

This the type of anxiety I get before I am about to do something big, something I am uncertain and nervous about. Truth be told this anxiety is only a figment of my imagination and always subsides once I am in the situation I was nervous about.

That night, Thursday October 14th, one of my favorite bands was playing: Vampire Weekend. Even better, the next night the notoriously theatrical performance put on by The Flaming Lips was to take place.

As I looked out over the crowd as i entered, Beach House dished out their melodic tunes. My adrenaline started to pump. The realization set in that, once again, I was in my atmosphere, my zone, and the place I want to be for the rest of my life- behind a camera in front of live music.

Shortly after my group arrived at the amphitheater Beach House left the stage.  During the set-up for Vampire Weekend I walked over to the press pit.

There I really began to feel in my groove, discussing past concert experiences with fellow members of the press and members of Jacksonville Security. We mainly discussed the intoxicated fools who either ruined shows, or absolutely made them. After about ten minutes of this banter had passed Vampire Weekend finally came on.

As I stood just under lead singer, Ezra Koenig, I became lost within my camera’s viewfinder. Honestly, when I’m behind that little piece of glass snapping away at one of my favorite bands I don’t even hear the music playing.

Even if I could hear the music it would not have mattered. My photos were getting better and better as the band moved from song to song. After three songs photographers typically are asked to leave the press pit, as I was instructed to do that night.

I made the decision to walk around the amphitheater to get shots of people watching the show and to get some wide angle pictures of the stage. Not even 5 minutes into doing this my camera was confiscated for using it past the three song limit.

Totally bummed out I made my way over to a seat located on the upper right hand side of the theater. As I looked down upon the rambunctious crowd in the orchestra pit, I spotted some of my friends dancing away. After about 10 minutes of enviously watching my friends dance I made my way down into the large throng of people.

Once I was in the crowd I could really feel the energy of the people singing along to Vampire Weekend. The band played a set of about an hour and fifteen minutes, playing pretty much all their hits including Cape Cod, Kwassa kwassa and Cousins.  As the band played A-Punk the crowd went nuts singing and dancing along to the indie beat.

Once the band left the stage their was a huge uproar from the crowd, who was not quite ready to return home.The crowd must have cheered for about 10 minutes before Vampire Weekend finally took the stage for a little encore. The band ended the night with Horchata, truly pleasing their fans.

As the band left the stage once again and people began to finally file out all I could think was how much of an experience The Flaming Lips were going to be the following night. I made no expectations for it, since I have found having no expectation’s makes for great experiences.

The Flaming Lips

Earlier in the week knowing that I would be shooting The Flaming Lips and writing an article about the experience, I searched around for some info about the band and their music.

I was astonished to learn that the Flaming Lips had been nominated for 7 Grammy awards and had won three of those nominations. Once in 2003 for best alternative rock album (Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon Utopia Planitia) and twice in 2007 The Lips won Grammy’s for best rock instrumental performance for “The Wizard Turns on” and Best Engineered album, non-classical for “At War With Mystics.”

Later in the day I will be seeing not a show but an experience. If a band wins a Grammy for best rock instrumental performance then they must have quite a show.

My friends and I met up a little later in the afternoon to get ready for the show and indulge ourselves in a brew or two before the realization set in that we were about to see The Flaming Lips. As our little group grew to about 7 people, it became time to head out for the show.

Unlike the night before where the atmosphere for Vampire Weekend was pretty relaxed, this night seemed different. The amphitheater was crawling with people of all types from all over Florida.

Before The Lips took the stage lead singer Wayne Coyne could be seen among the stage hands helping them set-up the equipment. Every time Coyne would appear on stage the crowd would burst into applause, whistles, and cheers. After a little while Coyne came to the front of the stage to make an announcement.

The speech that Coyne delivered is probably one of the best I have ever heard as an introduction to a performance. He told the audience that the light show can get pretty intense and that at times may cause “bad” experiences and if this were to happen to just look away. Next Coyne told the crowd that he will be coming off the stage in his legendary air sphere which he rides in across the crowd’s hands.

The crowd was delighted by the pre-show speech, however the atmosphere really came alive once he left the stage. Only about 10 minutes after the little warning about the light show the rest of the band came on, but in a rather different way.

Members of the band entered through their light wall, which was the backdrop for their show, out of a digitized image of a woman’s legs on to the stage; while Wayne Coyne stood just under the lights blowing up his magic hamster ball.

Once all the members of The Lips were on stage playing their instruments, Coyne finally had the air sphere blown up all ready to go. He gestured to the crowd implying should I do it? Should I really do it?

Coyne rolled himself off the stage onto the crowd’s hands to their great delight. I immediately ran with my camera from where I was in the press pit into the actual crowd. From their I managed to get some of the best shots of the night.

As Coyne returned back to the stage, air sphere still intact, I rushed back to the press pit. Almost the second Coyne got out of the sphere, confetti cannons began to erupt with a downpour of yellow and orange paper which covered most of the crowd.

Once the confetti cannons went off, the show became nonstop. The Flaming Lips had some new entertaining way of performing almost every three minutes. I was so unbelievably entertained that I constantly had to catch myself and say, “wait, is this really happening?”

The stage was like a circus- from Coyne on a bears shoulders, to dancers on both sides of the stage, to gigantically huge laser hands there was always something to look at.

Shortly after a couple songs the band pumped the crowd up with the song “I can be a frog”. If you have never heard this song it is a lot like the songs we all used to sing in preschool.

Basically Coyne will say something like “I can be a wolf” and then everyone in the crowd howls. So basically whatever animal or thing he says he can be, the crowd imitates by dancing or singing it out.
“I can be a frog” is definitely an interactive song.

As the show wound down about half way through, The Lips pulled out one of their biggest and best known songs, “Yoshimi battles the pink robots, Pt. 1”. I am sure the Lips have played this song at every show, but this time the song was played acoustic, which gave the song some new flavor.

As the show progressed I worked my way around the amphitheater looking for different viewpoints of the theatrics taking place on stage. Before I even knew it the show was almost over.

The second I heard the chords of “The W.A.N.D.” ring out I knew the show was coming to an end.

The band walked off the stage after the song was done, but the crowd wasn’t quite done with the band quite yet.

The audience cheered, whistled, and screamed for the Flaming Lips to come back on stage.

After about 5 minutes of ear bursting cheers the band came back on to play their encore, finally ending the show with “Do You Realize.” I still have this song imprinted in my brain from this night. As I looked around I saw faces in the crowd staring up at lead singer Wayne Coyne as tears rolled down theircheeks.

I guess I didn’t realize before coming to this show how personal this experience feels with the band. The Lips fans are die hard for the band, just as the band is die hard for their fans by keeping them entertained through out their entire show.

For more photos of the Vampire Weekend and The Flaming Lips show click on the picasa web albums logo located under “Subscribe” on the Gargoyle’s home page.

The photos from this story were printed in the 2011 Gargoyle Anthology: Silver Award for Photo Essay

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