[4 April 2007]
Built in 1870, Philadelphia’s Trocadero Theatre has, over time, housed vaudeville theatre, burlesque shows, and an art-house cinema—all types of productions that helped inspire Of Montreal’s somewhat elaborate stage show. By now, if you read the music blogs at least, you’ll have heard all about Of Montreal’s penchant for avant-garde theatrics. If main man Kevin Barnes isn’t playing in the nude, he’s playing in a ten-foot-tall dress or toying with gender roles as his alter ego, Georgie Fruit. But for all its bacchanal bravado, the costumes (Barnes bounds onto the stage wearing turquoise pixie boots, a sparkly gold top, and fishnet stockings), and disco-affected indie rock, the whole affair feels flatter than a pre-Magellan map.
But judging from the crowd, I hold the minority view. Below my balcony perch writhes a sea of sixteen-year-olds. Packed tighter than Iggy Pop’s pants and swaying from side to side as only a crowd of such proportion can, the fans bay for the band and cheer wildly when they appear. It doesn’t let up, either. During the show, people even crowd surf (maybe I go to the wrong shows, but I haven’t seen anyone crowd surf since the late ‘90s).
Halfway through high-pitched disco downer “A Sentence Sorts in Kongsvinger,” Barnes perches on the lip of the stage as a girl propelled from 12 rows out climbs over bodies and heads, finally connecting her lips with the singer’s microphone. Even the balcony bar area is dancing—grooving to the pre-programmed beats of “Suffer for Fashion” and “Labrynthian Pomp,” mouthing nonsensical lines such as, “Somehow you’ve red rovered the Gestapo circling my heart, and nothing can defeat you, no death, no ugly world,” and shaking their booties in a most un-ironic fashion as Barnes propagates his “C.C.A.A. Booty Patrol.”
But, for all the fun, the sound is off, and it’s only on their sixth song—when Jamie Huggins finally takes to the drums, providing a live beat for “She’s a Rejecter”—that the band sounds, well, like a band. Which makes me wonder why they don’t do it more often. Tonight, Huggins, dressed as a dapper, puritanical-looking hipster, spends more time with his synth than his drumsticks. Their latest album, Hissing Fauna, Are you the Destroyer?, is a groove-infected dance romp that sounds like Joy Division partying in Prince’s parlor. But tonight, it doesn’t translate. Only the intense, tightly wound “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” betters its recorded counterpart, pulsing towards a cacophony of sound as Barnes begs: “How can I explain I need you here and not here too?” It’s a question I could ask the group myself.
They shuck the sound problems in favor of a floorshow. A three-headed monster appears at the start of “Cato as a Pun,” only for the feral creature to get tossed aside, revealing a mischievously mustachioed man clad in a white body suit, who spends the rest of the show gallivanting around like Gollum gone dandy. Barnes, looking a little like Macaulay Culkin’s Party Monster character, makes several costume changes throughout, while his band, bedecked in angel wings, wigs, and various sparkling accoutrements, tries its best to blend in with the frontman’s theatrics.
Musically speaking, it’s not all bad; older songs such as the horn-adorned “I Was Never Young” and the euphoric “The Party’s Crashing Us” from 2005’s The Sunlandic Twins up the ante, as does a raucous show-closing run through the Fiery Furnaces’ “Tropical Iceland.” Yet there’s something oddly vacant about the whole affair. Maybe the band’s incessant touring schedule is to blame, and that’s why everything seems so workman-like. It’s also weird to see a crowd go wild as Barnes offers us autobiographical tales of how he literally “spent the winter on the verge of a total breakdown while living in Norway.”
I’m not begrudging the band their 15 minutes, but, in all honesty, if you’re going to bring it, I’d like to see it brought. By that, I mean, this show was kind of half-assed in its execution. I’m sure the group was, in their mind, soliciting some sort of Dadaist revue with their surreal approach to absurd interaction, but it was more cabaret than Cabaret Voltaire. In one painstakingly excruciating attack-of-the-prop moment, a ladder was brought on stage, which Kevin Barnes then visibly climbed, only to be visibly covered in a 10-foot-long dress that draped down to the floor. The final effect was stunning, but the set-up was stunted. I felt like a five-year-old viewing the hand protruding from the puppet’s ass; the death of illusion in all its gory glory.
Don’t get me wrong; I actually hate to say all this. I’ve been a fan of the band from day one, followed them from their 1997 debut Cheery Peel, bought everything they’ve released, seen several tours, and shoved them on my friends. By criticizing them, I feel like I’m poking myself in the eye with the sharp end of a stick. Maybe I’m just too old, and maybe I just don’t get it, but tonight, from my vantage point, Of Montreal was the musical equivalent of the hula hoop Tim Robbins’ character creates in The Hudsucker Proxy—you know, for kids.