This past Friday, I traveled to St. Louis to catch a concert by freak-flag-fliers Of Montreal. When I told CityBeat A&E Editor Jason Gargano about my trip, he gave me a puzzled look (not an uncommon occurrence).
“I like them,” he said, “but not enough to drive that far.”
A few months ago, when I suggested to CityBeat’s events dude Dan McCabe that the band would be a huge “get” for the MidPoint Music Festival, he shrugged it off and said, “Nobody’s ever cared about them before,” referring to the band’s modestly attended shows here in the past. (The band wasn’t going to be touring the area at the time anyway and were likely out of our budget range.)
But the Of Montreal of 2008 is a wildly different (and wildly more popular) beast than the one that has played the Southgate House throughout the years. Brain-trust Kevin Barnes has produced two albums over the past few years that have shown him to be something of a musical genius, combining sassy, sexy Funk, effete Disco and flashy Glam into an utterly unique gumbo that is sprinkled with more surprises than the Sarah Palin vice presidential selection.
This cosmic concoction is light years ahead of the Beatlesy Pop Barnes — who records completely on his own, playing all the sounds — originally produced. Barnes has blossomed into a complex and eccentric artist.
And, boy, does Of Montreal’s new live show reflect that metamorphosis. After reading a few reviews of earlier shows on this tour (and finding message boards with excited fan reviews that mostly said, "See this show at all costs"), I knew I had to drive to St. Louis.
The band played The Pageant, a glorious theater-like club with a balcony, downstairs seating and a large “pit” area for those who wanted to boogie (and plenty did).
Letting business owners decide how to run their own businesses? How incredibly logical.
Surveying the wonderful, new-ish venue, I couldn’t help but have the same feeling I had when I visited the House of Blues in Cleveland a few years back. Why can’t Cincinnati attract a first-tier club like this? Bogart’s should level its current facility and rebuild. Give the folks at The Pageant a call for some pointers.
From the second Of Montreal came on stage, it was clear that this wasn’t just a concert. It was a “show.” A theatrical production. An exercise in modern interpretive dance. A performance art spectacular. A freak fest. With 10-foot high risers for the two drummers and a slightly shorter one for the keyboardist/electronics controller, plus the glammy make-up and costumes, the show felt like what it must have been like to see Parliament/Funkadelic live in their Mothership phase for the first time. But, if you can imagine, even weirder.
The set-list ran non-stop (drawing largely from the last two oM albums), with hardly a second to catch your breath between songs. Meanwhile, the “actors” traveling with the band performed little scenes throughout the night — one sporting gigantic fake forearms, some sporting nude body suits, others dressed as ninjas. And on and on. Barnes himself was stripped down by dancers (sporting gold lamé hotpants for most of the show) and smeared in red paint.
Perhaps the little scenes acted out had something to do with the actual songs, but it all blended together to create a surrealistic memory. I don’t remember a ton about the show because it was such a barrage of sights and sounds. It was like a Technicolor dream/nightmare with a funky-ass soundtrack.
Musically, the band was note-perfect, giving the songs a bigger “Rock Show” feel. Band members shuffled around the stage, switching instruments. The concentration and stress that must come with running such a big production could be seen on Barnes’ face — he looked as though he was walking a tightrope, never flashing even a passing smile. Still, the show and music were full of so much joy, Barnes didn’t have to worry about being Mr. Congeniality.
Three video screens behind the stage provided even more visual stimulation, while a rotating “secret trap door” spun around to reveal different hand-made settings, including an Old-West-style stand-up piano and a king’s throne, on which Barnes sat and spun, singing his strange little songs about a black transgendered man (the main perspective on Barnes’ latest album, Skeletal Lamping).
There is a new crop of Indie bands that have been putting together homemade, low-budget stage sets in an effort to provide audiences a little more. Of Montreal are officially the kings and queens of this new movement. It’s hard to say whether more stardom and a bigger budget would change Of Montreal. Would the show be as entertaining if Barnes had the budget of, say, Kanye West? Knowing Barnes, probably.
Until then, it you are into Rock concerts that go beyond just some dudes jumping around like idiots, get yourself to an Of Montreal concert. There’ll be plenty of idiots jumping around, but I can’t think of any band that does it more entertainingly.
And, Mr. Barnes, if you’re reading, the Southgate House has a new, bigger sound system and stage. I’m more than sure they’d love to have you.
(Photo courtesy 2:30 Publicity)