Of Montreal: 09/18/10 @ Terminal 5
Describing an Of Montreal show is like setting the scene for a circus. Literally. The amount of cartoonish yet elaborate characters, the band-built set of props, the whirlwind of energy… it is difficult to pinpoint which component of the performance merits the most mention. When it comes down to it though, like the mark of any great band, it is the music that keeps people going. For a band like Of Montreal, their set is not an illusion designed to compensate for sub-par music. Neither is frontman Kevin Barnes’ energy, which is the quite opposite of a facade and a vocal part of his music whether on stage or not. So when I saw them for the first time on Saturday night, I was not surprised by the festival-like atmosphere. I knew that would be there. What stunned me was a remarkably tight performance that somehow managed to take the best parts of the band’s music and their renowned stage presence, both of which are anything but subtle. Such immaculate management prevented an overflowing of ideas, which is always possible considering the band’s lofty scope. Fans were treated to quality with no pretentious showmanship.
The success of their performance on Saturday night, the second of a two-night stint at Terminal 5, is no surprise to fans. When you have an opener like Janelle Monáe, who is successfully attaining fame in both independent and mainstream circles, it is hard to have doubts. The little that I caught of her set was excellent, and her re-emergence during the phenomenal “Enemy Gene” later in the night brought emphatic cheering from an audience that were thankful to be given an opener that sounded like a headliner. This occurred about mid-way through Of Montreal’s setlist, which to my delight was culled heavily from their new album, False Priest (review here), and my favorite, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (review here). Barnes and co. were able to seamlessly navigate their way around a setlist that, despite their striking stylistic similarities (like Barnes’ falsetto or a funk-heavy rhythm section), contained appropriate variations in tempo and mood.
A rendition of “Casualty of You” was a surprising entry in the midst of jolted dance-friendly efforts like “Godly Intersex” and “Girl Named Hello”, which was accompanied with dancers in pig masks who proceeded to grind it up with Barnes. Yet, they all maintained synchronization even as breathing room got thinner. As the sole ballad-like track on False Priest, “Casualty of You” fit naturally with songs from the same album despite its emotional distance. Barnes’ piano-driven delivery reached believable authenticity despite the more vivacious preceding efforts, which was played with expected mastery by longtime members Bryan Poole, Dottie Alexander, and others. Barnes stole the show’s visual factor, but the music was a collaborative tour-de-force that contained the tightness and infectiousness demanded from funk-heavy efforts.
Performances of “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider” and “She’s a Rejector” reminded me how wonderful Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? was. Even though Barnes is three years past the divorce that plagued him to write many of the exceptional but forlorn efforts on Hissing Fauna, the same intensity was there as if it happened yesterday. It is questionable whether an audience should enjoy an artist’s suffering, so perhaps these tracks sounded bouncier and more fluid than usual because the issue is not as sensitive. Or maybe it is simply that the band was on their game. The intro to “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider” focused on some very interesting glitch-pop, while “She’s a Rejector” retained the same successful anthem-against-heartbreak feel as it did three years ago. These songs were fantastic additions to the False Priest-heavy set, showing more alt-rock and electro-rock than funk but achieving a similar degree of irresistible uniqueness.
These earlier efforts had little dependence on the set or scenery, which Barnes described to Spinner as being a very collaborative effort: “It’s like we’re an art collective, in a way,” he said. “Everyone in the band is contributing, everyone is the crew is contributing and this is very collaborative experience for all of us. Our bass player is responsible for building 85 percent of the props we’re going to use on tour. My brother designed all of them. All of us are involved in filming all the video content.” Seeing as how tightly involved the band’s music was, it is not surprising to see that this was a mutual effort. Barnes may steal the show on more occasions than one, but it is clear that the Georgia-based collective are blessed with additional talent beyond their enigmatic frontman.
For a tour that has seemingly been developed like an elaborate film, with costumes and sets taking the entire summer to create, it certainly lived up to expectations. I am not sure how Barnes had enough time to write a great album like False Priest AND help organize an intricate tour like this, but that is beside the fact. The band put on an exceptional show that was lively but also somewhat grounded, featuring a very accessible setlist (for Of Montreal’s standards) and not straying too far from it, apart from a few admirable Michael Jackson covers to close the night. I recommend that you listen to False Priest, fall in love with it, and check to see if the band is coming somewhere near you. If not, it is one of those tours you will regret missing a year from now.