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Rays of Hope 

The Unlimited Sunshine Tour is good news for a dull summer festival season.

Good day, Sunshine: The Flaming Lips bring bent psych-pop to the Unlimited bill.
  • Good day, Sunshine: The Flaming Lips bring bent psych-pop to the Unlimited bill.
Admit it: America's summer festival scene sucks. Like so many other post-Nirvana truths, Lollapalooza's original promise to bring diversity to the legions of musical outsiders has been discredited. Or, more likely, it has evolved into micromarketing and corporate shilling. There are two extremes: a bazillion bands playing for 15 barely deserved minutes on a multitude of Warped stages, and radio-station-sponsored dog-and-pony shows, where one-hit wonders try to convince you that they're not. Downright pathetic, and frighteningly so.

Which is why, in this summer of live-music discontent, the Unlimited Sunshine Tour is such a bold return to the brave new world that Perry Farrell and (waaayyy back in the day) Bill Graham allowed us to imagine. Six bands, six styles, six hours for $35 bucks. Now this is more like it.

The brainchild of Cake singer John McRea and drummer Pete McNeal, Unlimited Sunshine is a damn good mix tape presented live, under a canopy where beer is served, dancing is encouraged, and friends can and will turn around and say, "What the hell is that?" Here's a primer, so you can school them: Kinky is a techno-disco band from Monterey, Mexico, that, in McRea's words, makes "people-should-get-together-and-breed kind of music." Modest Mouse is a moody indie rock trio with a budding guitar god at the controls. The eight-man Hackensaw Boys play frenzied bluegrass, using only two mics and a whole lotta love. De La Soul helped found the Native Tongue posse and ushered in hip-hop's new school, but is now rap's older, wiser spokesman. The Flaming Lips bear melancholy melodies, making unique American psychedelia that will bring tears to your eyes and a smile to your lips while confusing your senses. And, as befits a master of ceremonies, Cake will do pretty much all of the above, while at the same time going the distance. Monochromatic, this is not.

"It's something that, aesthetically, I wanted to do for a long time," McRea says by phone from the tour's stopover in Seattle. "I think that country bands and hip-hop groups and alt-rock bands should always play right next to one another."

Ahhh, but not all country, hip-hop, and alt-rock bands taste great together. Some recipes call for different ingredients.

"I wanted to create a blend," he admits when asked how he made his choices. "I started doing some serious research when we decided to do this tour in January -- at the record store all the time, headphones on all the time. I tried to create a combination of chemicals that was balanced, and if I had put one additional thing on, in any direction, it would have tipped to the side, messed up the pH balance or something. I didn't think a lot about the size of the band's audience or whether these musicians were friends of mine. I really just tried to isolate the criteria to music. There's no ready-made, just-add-water scene that any of these musics suggest. In a way, it's really all outsider music -- very much musicians just doing what they do, regardless of cultural or tribal parameters."

It's also the kind of situation that Flaming Lips songwriter Wayne Coyne likes to thrust his band of multimedia merchants into on an all-too-consistent basis. He's a Lollapalooza veteran, has guided the Lips through tours with everyone from Candlebox to the Butthole Surfers, and has a sweet tooth for the bizarre rock and roll experience.

"We're always looking for new stuff, always going, 'Fuck, let's see what that's all about,'" he says in that amiable Zen pottymouth style he's perfecting. "John from Cake called me, he told me what he's trying to do, and I didn't know if he'd be able to do it all. I figured it'd be a weird night. Thinking that two outta three nights would probably be good, but once in a while it'd be a mess. But I thought that it just sounded too good not to try and be part of this."

Having played pretty much every kind of atmosphere in his two decades guiding the Lips, Coyne gets especially excited talking about the diversity of Unlimited Sunshine.

"I really like that there's a bunch of different stuff. On tour, I get so tired of seeing the same thing, band after band. Even sometimes when we were on Lollapalooza, it was a bit of a burnout. Even if one band was good, chances are you had seen similar things three or four times earlier in the day. But this thing really doesn't do that, and that makes it really bizarre. And I think the audience is letting it all happen."

McRea believes that this is an audience ripe for an idea whose time has, maybe, finally returned.

"Look at it this way," he says, offering an example: "The other night at [Colorado's] Red Rocks [Amphitheater], Maseo from De La Soul shouted to the audience, 'How many people in the house like salsa and merengue?' And a bunch of people cheered. 'How many people like rock and roll?' Some more people cheered. 'How many people like funk?' And he just went on with this list of different kinds of music. Now perhaps it's an oversimplification -- and perhaps everyone just wanted to cheer -- but it was amazing how many people were shouting affirmative for most of those kinds of music. See, this tour is a kind of an experiment, and we've determined that it really works."

While not nearly so philosophical, Coyne reaches the same conclusion through his deconstruction of the dazed and confused.

"Maybe this is a credit to the type of fans that Cake draws or to the type of fans who are coming to see the show, but every night so far, the audience just comes, from the get-go. They're always like 'Oh, what the fuck is this? That's great.' They're there to drink beer and have a good time. Whoever's up, let's go! Every band gets a great reception -- they'd all do encores if time permitted. It all works."

And for his next cultural concoction, McRea wants to try out his free-form experiment on the local dial.

"I'd like to do this with radio too. I think that commercial stations severely underestimate the intelligence and broad-mindedness of most music listeners. I'm sure that there are other people out there who listen to a Frank Sinatra song followed by an AC/DC song, followed by a Perez Prado number. Now, I do understand that music is used as a tribal moniker, and people use it as a badge, and people get really isolated in their own narrow confines of acceptability, but I think there are a lot of people who just like music. Period."

Here's hoping he succeeds.

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