Yoko Ono has been a hero in my life since my early teenage years. She is a woman on the vanguard in so many ways — her avant-garde music has always been years ahead of its time, her conceptual art is full of quirky humor and simple beauty, and she has worked tirelessly for peace all around the world. Though she has long been villainized by some Beatles fans who still blame her for breaking up the band — her marriage to John Lennon is a love story for the ages. The nearly 79-year-old Yoko’s uncompromising quest to be completely herself inspires me.
So, when we got the news on Thanksgiving that Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono band would be ringing in the New Year in Oklahoma City, there was no question how we would be spending our holiday. And who would think about bringing an international culture icon like Ono to a place like Oklahoma City? Why, none other than the Flaming Lips — modern-day torchbearers of DIY avant-garde wacky and wonderful weirdness. The Flaming Lips, like Ono, have continually pushed boundaries with their music and their artistic lives, utilizing every available tool to infuse their work with eccentricity and love.
We began our New Year’s odyssey on Tuesday, Dec. 27, road-tripping from Denver to Aspen to see the Flaming Lips play the tiny Belly Up. For any music fan, seeing a major band at the Belly Up is a treat, but the Flaming Lips have, for the second year in a row, put on a ridiculously confetti-fueled, laser and smoke machine extravaganza. Denver’s own Vitamins opened for the Lips with a spaced out psych rock set, featuring Lizzie Allen’s dreamy vocals.
The Aspen set featured a mix of Flaming Lips classics, including “Yoshimi,” “She Don’t Use Jelly” and “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” — alongside some more recent work like the excellently crunchy riff of “Worm Mountain” (from 2009’s “Embryonic”), and the trippy 2011 single “Is David Bowie Dying?” The highlight of the show, however, was a collection of psychedelic Beatles tunes that the Lips “tried out” on the Aspen audience in preparation for their New Year’s gigs, including “I am the Walrus,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “A Day in the Life” and an encore of “I Want You/She’s So Heavy” ending with an almost unbearably long (10+ minutes) jam of the final familiar arpeggios. The Belly Up show was a blast, but I couldn’t help feeling like it was a bit of a warm-up, with Wayne, himself, explaining that “What is happening this weekend (playing with Ono) is one of the most amazing things that has happened in my life” and by the end of the night, I was happily ready for the real show.
The real show started early on New Year’s Eve in Oklahoma City (hometown of the Flaming Lips) with a strong, interesting set from indie psych-pop duo Phantogram. Preceding Ono’s performance was a beautiful 20-minute film montage highlighting her life and work, including footage of her conceptual art pieces and sweet moments of her life with Lennon. The gorgeous, glittery Ono took the stage, bedecked in a white suit and top hat, backed by the Plastic Ono band — led by son Sean, including Nels Cline (Wilco) on guitar and his wife, Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto) on keyboards. Ono’s recent work is both melodic and rockin’ (check out 2009’s “Between My Head & the Sky”) — and her OKC set followed suit, including new material like “Waiting for the D Train,” classic dance tracks like “Walking on Thin Ice” and a moving reprisal of “Mulberry,” the guitar/vocal noise piece first recorded with Lennon. Between songs, Ono’s stage presence is disarmingly genuine — she giggles, grins and tells stories; but her singing is purely primal — she howls, moans, screams and chirps.
The Flaming Lips set began with the classic Coyne hamster-ball ride over the ecstatic audience, all to the tune “Sweet Leaf,” the Black Sabbath ode to marijuana. The set list was similar to that at the Belly-Up, with the addition of some gems like “What is the Light” from 1999’s seminal album “The Soft Bulletin.” Nearing midnight, Ono and her band joined the Lips on stage for a rousing “Happy Christmas, War is Over” — a moment I will count as one of the highlights of my life as a rock and roll fan. Shortly thereafter, amid cheers, tears, kisses and a storm of confetti, we said goodbye to 2011, and hello to hope, peace, and love. Thanks Yoko, thanks Flaming Lips. It was a night I’ll never forget.
Amy McGrath is a Denver-based writer and regular contributor to Reverb.