Most people are children or young adults when they watch the 1971 film classic ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ for the first time. Being a child or young adult means you are watching the film without the wisdom and maturity of life experiences to guide you and explain things; being a child or young adult means developmentally you don’t have the full function of your prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that allows for higher level of understanding. You hence go into this film of snozzberries, mysterious figures, crippled grandparents and a psychedelic wondrous boat ride with the innocent mind of a new adventurer, only able to simply take in all the sights and senses that bombard you each moment, never knowing, as Wonka says, which direction you are going. The only option is to immerse yourself into the wormhole with your childlike wonder. Things aren’t going to always turn out the way they may initially appear to be.
This theme played out for the audience of ACL Live at the Moody Theater on the first day of October, 2017. The Garden was the first band to test this notion when twin brothers took the stage for a night that in the end would turn out to be indefinable. At first glance, if you heard ‘brothers from a Southern California beach town’ which is what The Garden is described as you might start to think Beach Boys. You would be wrong. The Garden’s sound is no Pet Sounds, though their ambition to be whatever they want is in the wheelhouse of this influential album with its spectrum of sound and psychedelia art rock. The Garden brothers jump around on stage like Van Halen while beating out punk riffs on their drums and guitar that sound like Green Day. One is dressed like a jock, the other is wearing a suit. After they blow through their 30 minute set and exit the stage, one of the members of the audience turns to a stranger behind her and says ‘Can you tell me what I just watched?!’ The man replies calmly, ‘they refused to be categorized into any one type of genre, they are actually creating their own genre’ as if that explained everything. No further explanation required.
Things would only get more strange with the arrival of Mac DeMarco. Speaking of stranger, the day of the show in the Sunday New York Times there was an interview with Finn Wolfhard who plays Mike Wheeler in Netflix’s hit TV show Stranger Things. In the interview, the reporter for the Times follows Finn into Rough Trade NYC while Finn shops for vinyl. One of the vinyl’s Finn ends up purchasing is Mac DeMarco’s latest This Old Dog. ‘He’s so funny’, Finn was quoted as saying about Mac. Come to find out Finn was filming Stranger Things in Atlanta recently and was invited up on stage to play guitar with Mac when he attended one of his shows there. This wasn’t an anomaly.
Mac DeMarco’s Photo Gallery
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It seems that inviting people up on stage and being funny are hallmarks of Mr. DeMarco, as the Austin audience was given the same treatment as the Atlanta audience and then some. One young man in the Austin crowd was celebrating his 20th birthday the night of the show, and halfway through Mac’s set he was brought up on stage and gifted with the traditional Happy Birthday song. This came after Mac had already allowed another member of the audience to kiss his guitar, after Mac had sung a soulful ballad that oddly people were moshing to, and after he had lamented a frustration to everyone about not having yet purchased a cowboy hat even though he was in Texas. Does any of this make sense? Perhaps things were murky yet still somewhat clear up until the point Mac announced a new single, then proceeded to sing a song about downtown that at first sounded like Vanessa Carlson’s hit “A Thousand Miles” but resulted in him only singing the “making my way downtown” part of the song over and over again, while interjecting his own commentary about what he would do downtown, such as bury his children downtown and import Canadian syrup to sell as a business venture downtown. Huh? Before finishing this uh, cover song he did a brief guitar solo then proclaimed “I’m John Mayer!” while the audience cheered in agreement. Yet there would still be more stranger things to come. Near the end of his set, in between taking sips of soda and Jameson whiskey, Mac would suddenly announce “it smells like burnt nipple in here”, then before the audience had a chance to register what was going on he would pull up his neatly tucked in t-shirt, exposing his chest, and proceed to take a disposable lighter to each of his nipples, literally setting them on fire while people cheered in horror, awe and confusion. You had to have been there.
Final performer and co-headliner The Flaming Lips didn’t need silly stage jumps and cheap pocket lighter props to get things going. When you are just like Mr. Willy Wonka himself, you command. Wayne Coyne stepped out onto a full stage pre-opera intro to open with the Lips’ song ‘Race For the Prize,’ complete with a flaming red suit and Zoro mask, while the audience was lit up by hundreds of colored lights throbbing from the stage all the while being pelted with streamers and multi colored balloons. A gigantic balloon filled the remainder of the stage that spelled out ‘Fuck Yeah Austin.’ Under normal circumstances, you would expect streamers and balloons and a hearty “fuck yeah” to close out a show, not start a show. When the 2nd song ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part One’ started, yet another prop was brought out, this time a giant pink robot that swayed back and forth to the music and seemed to almost be able to keep a beat (was this thing alive? I think I saw it wink). I’m pretty sure for one brief moment near the end of this song I smelled cotton candy. As I was trying to find the cotton candy machine, I noticed Wayne had disappeared, only to re-appear for ‘There Should Be Unicorns’ in the GA pit atop a multi colored unicorn that he paraded around the pit floor on while singing and throwing confetti up in the air, people dangling precariously from the ledge of the 2nd floor trying to catch what could only be MAGICAL confetti. Wayne finished his song back on stage with a bizarre ‘thank you Travis county’ rather than the traditional ‘thank you Austin’ you would expect. The parade of props didn’t end with the unicorn or inflatable robot, it would continue with a giant light up gong that Wayne kept hitting so many times I started to believe he was Chuck Barris and this was turning into an episode of The Gong Show, something that could only be in the realm of possibility at this point, it was certainly wacky enough to qualify.
The Flaming Lips’ Photo Gallery
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It was only after being inundated with back to back props that Wayne then brought out the words, and soon the lights spelled out Yeah over and over again, while Wayne punched his fist in the air and the audience punched their fists in the air too and sang “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song (With All Your Power)” about how we’ve got the power, with every verse the people believing it more and more, with more conviction, each of us following our dear leader like the psychedelic church congregation we had become. It could only be a matter of time before Wayne would take to the sky and fly like a bird, right? We would soon find out that this was a partial truth just like the rest of the night had been. What came next was that Wayne would be floating not up in the sky but rather over the tops of the floor GA audience in a gigantic, clear bubble. In this case Wayne wasn’t channeling Willy Wonka or Chuck Barris, he was channeling David Bowie as he sang Bowie’s classic “Space Oddity” while the audience enthusiastically sang along and screamed “the stars look very different today” knowing that it wasn’t just the stars that seemed odd.
Not long after recovering from the Bowie flashback, the stage started to fill with Oompa Loompas. Could it really be? No wait, they weren’t Oompa Loompas- they were actual children taking to the stage. It was the Barton Creek Children’s Choir, and they were there to sing for us (but of course). If David Bowie wasn’t enough to get the audience jazzed up, the children were. By the time The Flaming Lips closed the show with a gigantic inflatable rainbow to their hit ‘Do You Realize,’ the audience was hugging, dancing and kissing each other. DO we realize? Realize what? What’s going on here? What year is this? 1969 when ‘Space Oddity’ came out? 1971 when Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory came out? Is this 1976 and we’re on an extended episode of The Gong Show? It seemed pretty clear we had truly traveled down a wormhole, with flashing psychedelic colors and our Great Leader leading the way for us. ‘Follow me to Cheer Up Charlies after the show!’ Wayne proclaimed, and everyone cheered. Wait, perhaps Wayne didn’t say the exact words “follow me” but he did reference heading to Cheer Up Charlies (a Red River music venue and bar where rainbows and love abound) and people were listening, sort of. Maybe being an adult and having full cognition and life experiences weren’t that useful after all. This is a planet of illusion, as “Do You Realize” and the Flaming Lips explain gently in their closing song when they explain for example that the sun doesn’t go down, it’s “just an illusion created by the world spinning round”. Don’t try and understand any of this stuff after all. Just experience everything with the wonder of a child.