Review by Brendan Twist || Photos by Joshua Brasted
Hipsters packed The Howlin’ Wolf on Saturday night to see Of Montreal, the prolific, Georgia-based indie rock group of songwriter and provocateur Kevin Barnes. They didn’t appear to mind that Pitchfork had crapped on the band’s latest album, Paralytic Stalks, released last month. They opted for Barnes and co. over Foburg Fest, the third-year indie music festival that was in full swing on the other side of the French Quarter. They love this guy, and many of them sported face paint and American Indian feathers inspired by past Barnes getups.
The band opened with the first four tracks off Paralytic Stalks, in consecutive order. It’s kind of a stale way to start a show, playing a bunch of stuff off the new record in album order, but the tunes on the band’s latest LP are so densely packed with instrumentation and electronic textures, and they veer so wildly from place to place, that it helped to hear them live in a familiar context. It helped too that the band sounded crystal clear. It felt odd that songs this complicated (and convoluted) came off so clean in concert, but so it was.
The crowd responded warmly to the new material, but the room’s excitement level increased notably when the band lit into “She’s a Rejecter” off 2008’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, their consensus high-water mark.
Of Montreal’s stage show generates a lot of discussion, and this tour provides plenty to see. A half-dozen flat screens encircled the stage, playing colorful, psychedelic videos in the vein of the band’s artwork. A couple of guys in face-enclosed, full-body spandex suits appeared periodically to dance, or toss sacks of balloons into the audience, or help a third, lady spandex-thing in a blonde wig give birth.
These gimp-types were funny and weird and sexual in a kind of ambiguous way, which sort of describes the whole Of Montreal experience. There’s a sexuality to Barnes and his falsetto – and his black, transsexual Georgie Fruit persona; and his brutally open lyrics about his relationship with his wife – that you can’t easily put your finger on. There were a lot of openly gay young men and women in the audience who seemed thrilled to be there, like they were in a totally accepting space. In the midst of the drinking and the dancing and the jaded too-cool you can find at any indie show, there was an undercurrent of sexual empowerment. Which sounds corny, but it’s also kind of heartening.
Back to the visuals: having eight people in your band also makes you more fun to watch. Especially when you’ve got a flute and sax-playing multi-instrumentalist, or a beardo guitarist who crowd-surfs half way to the soundboard, or an Asian violinist named Kishi Bashi who dances in a manner most adorable. The fun quotient increased when Barnes stepped away from his guitar or keyboard to cavort around the stage untethered. There is an affectless quality to his movement that invokes the platitude “dance like nobody’s watching” in the best way possible.
The band pulled a neat trick near the end of its set. After playing much of “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission,” the 13-minute closer from Paralytic Stalks (complete with its descent into string-heavy, Kubrickian, sci-fi horror) they transitioned into “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal,” the brooding epic that sits at the midpoint of Hissing Fauna, and then returned to the former track for its elegiac coda. Inspired songs choice, and well performed.
They then left the stage and returned for an encore – a trio of songs from 2008’s Skeletal Lamping, followed by “Gronlandic Edit” from Hissing Fauna. Kind of a low-key choice for a closer – quiet, mid-tempo – but one that anyone who’s ever enjoyed the band can get behind. It’s just a tasty jam. As he exited, Barnes said, “We love you” to an audience that clearly echoed the sentiment.