This Music Against Brain Degeneration Revue had the potential to be one of the joys of summer. The program promised a quintet of restlessly innovative performers (The Flaming Lips, Sebadoh, Robyn Hitchcock, Cornelius and ICU), a solid between-acts DJ, innovative shtick (free radio headsets that broadcasted a live sound-board mix of the show) and lots of confetti. Not a bad offering for a hot Wednesday night in August.
But the show -- at least this Wednesday's show at Tramps in New York; there was another the night before -- was just that: not bad. While the Lips' Wayne Coyne, who MCed, is probably at least half-serious when he purports that the show might stop brain degeneration ("Who knows," the postcard-program of the night read, "perhaps on your way home you'll come up with the cure for cancer") it seems more likely to cause hearing damage: The headphones, while clearing up some of the high-end tones, seemed to do little more than inhibit conversation and cause confusion.
Unfortunately, I missed Japanese pop star Cornelius, who was done performing by 9:30. Hitchcock, who seemed tweaked out of his skull during his half-hour solo set, offered few of the droll delights he usually dishes out so liberally in his concerts. He rushed through "I Something You," his epochal love song that showed up on last year's live "Storefront Hitchcock," and "Viva Sea-Tac" from "Jewels for Sophia" was missing the manic energy that drives the studio version. Even his funny between-song patter seemed rushed and ill-conceived. An ongoing monologue about an old man with "mind bees" on his neck seemed designed to highlight Hitchcock's willful eccentricity more than his often unflinching intelligence. Indeed, the highlight of the set was watching Coyne sing along offstage to an otherwise disappointing version of the Hitchcock classic, "My Wife and My Dead Wife."
Sebadoh, who have been getting routinely slammed for dragging down the revue's performances, was surprisingly enjoyable. While singer Lou Barlow could not help displaying bursts of whiny neuroticism (at one point, he complained that the other bands seemed to be getting more applause), the band played a throbbing, energetic set and eschewed the infuriating self-indulgence and anti-professionalism that drives so many Sebadoh shows. Both Barlow and Jason Loewenstein -- the two traded off on guitar and vocal duties -- were tighter and more focused than they often are, and after Hitchcock's disappointing set, Sebadoh, who mixed a few songs off "The Sebadoh" with older stuff like "Brand New Love" and "Soul and Fire" injected some much needed life back into the proceedings.
The Lips set is a little harder to critique. It wasn't so much a concert as a performance: More than 75 percent of the music was canned, including all of Steven Drozd's drumming. (He showed up drumming on a video screen set behind the action, accompanying himself with guitar and keyboards on stage.) And while Coyne's enthusiasm was infectious -- the man spent the whole evening with a irascible twinkle in his eye and hammered away on a gong through most of his set -- I would have preferred a little more live action. Nonetheless, the MTV hit "She Don't Use Jelly" and a brief soundcheck of the new "The Spiderbite Song," with Coyne warbling along in his inimitable falsetto, were fun, even if they were mostly prerecorded.
The highlight of the Lips show came toward the end, when Coyne sang "Over the Rainbow" -- introduced as "Cornelius' favorite song" -- with ICU's Oiwa on theremin, and followed it with a send-up of "What a Wonderful World" with Hitchcock and Barlow. They were goofing around, sure, but at least it felt spontaneous and alive. The encore, a version of "Buggin'" that had the crowd buzzing along to Drozd's Casio-style keyboard jams, showed how much fun the band can be when it focuses on performing rather than showmanship.