I caught a sold-out performance with Paul last night, the third night of Of Montreal's new American tour. The Athens, Ga., band, originally formed as part of the Elephant 6 Collective in 1997, has been in my listening library for six years now, and in that period I've seen them six times, each time with a zanier performance and a larger audience. In 2003 I caught them at the Court Square Theater in Harrisonburg, Va., a small movie theater. My friends and I sat in the front row and were wowed by an exuberant performance of "Penelope," by an impromptu juggling act, by masks and confetti, by our first listen to the harmonizing in "Lysergic Bliss," and by an over-the-top encore performance of Boston's "More Than a Feeling." In September 2005 a packed, unconditioned dance floor in Charlottesville, Va., left me the second-most sweatiest I've ever been, and in the spring of 2006, I hiked across the state with good friends to see them in a brightly lit auditorium on the campus of William and Mary, whose students my kudos go out to for being one of the most happy-go-lucky audiences I've ever encountered.
Last night I saw how far they've come in the past ten years, a fame that has occurred entirely under the radar. Except for Outback Steakhouse's reuse of one of their songs as a very strange jingle ("Let's go Outback tonight..."), you won't hear them on any mainstream radio station. They're well-liked by Pitchfork Media, and this week they're featured in a Rolling Stones interview, but their success has never reached the media explosion level--they've never skyrocketed and then fizzled out in a shitdrizzle of high schooler adoration like Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, or Bright Eyes. They're well-liked professionals, constantly improving their creative energy, and so they've garnered a huge, committed following largely free of pretentious assholes and trendy hangers-on. So, thankfully, the audience last night was one of those rare sold-out 9:30 Club audiences that wasn't full of obnoxious people. The crowd was young and considerably queer, willing to dance and able to sport goofy attire.
The only opening band was Love is All, a five-piece from Gothenburg, Sweden, whose debut Nine Times That Same Song was named one of Pitchfork's best albums of 2005. Humble and enthusiastic, they looked like the AV club had gotten together to form an extracurricular garage band: a gangly, pasty saxophonist with his hair parted down the middle, the slightly oversized, effeminate guitarist with the scarf, the tiny tomboy doing vocals, and the too-cute, too-smart, too-nice to be anything but a nerd drummer (who was fucking adorable, let me just throw that out there). As for the bassist... well, he just looked like a normal rock band bassist, with a tee-shirt, jeans, and a beard. Maybe he's dating the singer's older sister and doing it as a favor?
I don't mean to sound insulting; hell, I've been involved in far nerdier and not nearly as good looking groups myself. It's the awkward but interesting geeks who change the world. They played a great set with plenty of friendly chemistry and danceable beats. I'm not sure why Swedish pop bands always sing in English, but it's nice to understand their smile-inducing, uplifting lyrics, which mesh well with the giddy melodies and the lead singer's unique, excited voice. They played a good set, and the songs from their upcoming album were very promising.
During intermission, crew in Day of the Dead skull masks assembled various instruments and construction on the set. Two drum sets elevated to ten feet flanked either side upstage, and a triptych of movie screens hung over everything. A changing screen at center stage hid a large area behind it, while microphones, guitar and bass setups, and a keyboard setup lined the downstage area. The lights dimmed, the five musicians took their places dressed in attire ranging from disco caveman to 80s hairband superstar to glittering chanteuse, with wild hairdos to match, and the three screens filled with a cartoon panorama view of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire with all its golden pyramids. Colorful lights spun, flashed, and strobed, and the changing screen rotated to reveal four giant, gilded Olmec deities, who carried a veiled palanquin downstage, from which emerged Kevin Barnes, the joyfully effeminate (but married to the keyboardist), almost skeletally thin frontman/diva, dressed in an elaborate Mariachi outfit with a giant sombrero hanging down his back. On his cue, the rotund Olmec deities jived and grooved, and on another cue they pulled off their golden exteriors and transformed into black-clad ninjas with expressionless, silver faces, who proceeded to quietly slip through the audience.
The theater continued unended and uninterrupted for over an hour and half, with a constant barrage of pantomimed skits, elaborate costumes, surreal and comic videos, trippy visual displays, and complex rhythms and sound experiments. A fifth improv actor joined the ninjas, and soon they became Wild West cowboys gambling and skirmishing at a saloon, complete with a ragtime pianist and animated deer heads nodding to the beat from their mounted positions on the walls. They spent one entire song posed as middle class, college partiers frozen in a photograph, only to be later rearranged by the band members into compromising positions. They became glitter-splattered special ops and beachgoing nudists strutting their muscles. They fused together to become a massive George Washington golem, waving his tree-limbs to the beat. Genders swapped, alliances changed, good and evil was never quite clear, but the absurdist visuals always struck a chord.
At one point Barnes sang from offstage of being tired of sucking dick. The changing screen rotated to reveal him swimming in blood-red cardinal robes, lazily languoring in an oversized throne. A bubble-shaped Mexican demon of death seduces him with skull-lined swords, but the cardinal dismisses him. A steamy nun languishes at his feet, but he ignores her. A cockatoo and a pig dressed in the red uniforms of the eighteenth-century British army drag a feminine tiger onto the stage, and the bishop gives a thumbs down in favor of execution. The images were comical and yet haunting, charged with the idea of meaning though any number of meanings could exist. It was fascinating.
Meanwhile, Barnes descended into near-nudity (he's performed naked before), sporting Rocky Horror style golden lamé briefs and a fur-covered guitar strap before donning a turquoise-sequined coat and an enormous, pink fanny pack embroidered with his initials in gemstones, from which he threw condoms into the audience. Fusing with one of the actors, he became a four-legged, sad centaur, accusing renaissance dames of only being interested in sex appeal while a randy satyr upstages him with a juice-drenched, fruit-devouring orgy.
The visuals were endless, and I've only recounted a portion of them. It was toward the end that a sort of plotline developed, with a sassy, introspective Barnes in a pink bathrobe being seduced into suicide by four ghoulish poltergeists with grinning, silver John McCain faces. They hand him knives, prescription pills, a pistol, encourage him to end it all. Finally, he hangs himself from a gallows. They cut him down and initiate him into the afterlife, baptizing him in blood from wooden bowls and giving him a shaman mask. The afterworld is dark and violent, but Barnes find solace by donning a child's superhero outfit--a suit made of bedsheets. Holding his cape up triumphantly, he ushers in his reawakening, and during an absence with pounding music and spastic strobe lights, he is carried back onto stage in an earthy casket by an Olmec deity and four of the McCain poltergeists, who have now become agents of good, still wearing the grinning masks but now dressed in glittery spandex instead of black tatters. They resurrect him, mummified in snow-white papier mache, and as downy feathers fall from the ceiling, showering the audience, the music swells, and the show ends on a happy, transcendent note.
In short, it was an extremely entertaining show--a performance art piece and a musical act all in one. Of Montreal may lack the spontaneity, audience participation, and engaging friendliness that make shows by bands like The Decemberists so good, but they more than make up for it by the enormous amount of time, energy, and money that went into their production. This was the most well executed, well designed, well rehearsed, and smoothest running concert I've ever seen. Of Montreal is one of the most original, fun, and musically talented pop bands in America right now, and the obvious amount of money and energy that went into this (very inexpensive) show is proof that they're more interested in making art and pleasing fans than turning a buck.
And the dancing was wonderful, too.
So thank you, Of Montreal, and thank you, Love is All. That was one of the best shows I've ever been to. Anyone who still has a chance to see them between now and the end of November should do everything in their power to achieve that. Regrets are impossible.