The play’s the thing for Kevin Barnes. Caked in pixie-ish stage makeup and an infantile costume raided from Pinocchio’s closet, he embodied the Performer. His is a breed of spectacle, a rarity in indie rock, a supernova of absurdity but somehow poignancy, too. Barnes is the philosopher peacock with a morose streak, the mad hatter who laughs (and dances) through his tears. By emphasizing the surreal and refracting reality, he becomes the pillar of truth in song.
His band, Of Montreal (not actually from Montreal but rather Georgia), is the modern-day Spiders from Mars. Flanking their flamboyant leader at the art deco haven the Wiltern in Los Angeles, the players looked as though they were a group that landed instead of formed back in the ‘90s. Its razzle-dazzle isn’t rock furor; it’s stardust incarnate. There is something so alien about the octet, so engrossing and weird that it seemed a sin to go for a bathroom break even during the twelve-minute marathon “The Past is a Grotesque Animal”.
What would one miss during a urinary interlude? The possibilities were endless, as Of Montreal knows how to cater to the ADD generation. There was plenty of fanfare interwoven with the silver-tongued lyrics of the fey Barnes. In front of each musician was a white sheet to project the most bizarre and serene images they could conjure up. (Props must be given to their projectionist and lighting maestro. He served as much an orchestrater of the concert’s vibe as the lead singer did.) Crude caricatures conversed with detached alligator jaws and then got sucked into wormholes of plaid and asterisks.
All the while, dancers in full beige bodysuits threw giant popcorn kernels containing helium balloons into the audience. One of these amorphous drones crowd-surfed the entire diameter of the Wiltern’s ground floor (not an easy task, since it’s a tiered layout) during the bawdy beats of “She’s a Rejector”. This troupe also served as anthropomorphic angel wings for Barnes when he positioned himself at his keyboards. It was a sight that would have made 1970s Elton John jealous. Ah, but Reginald Dwight also never had a blooming flower composed of human limbs that spewed confetti.
Much of the set had a throwback quality to headier times, thanks to the soundtrack of their latest, Paralytic Stalks (Polyvinyl). Its tone had critics wondering, “What the funk?” as it relies heavily on Chic influences. Guitarist Bryan Poole giddily embraced the style of that era by donning his best Bootsy Collins ensemble. For the gauzy jive of “Spiteful Intervention”, Barnes busted out moves that looked more appropriate for the ski slopes than a dance floor. It was like one’s precious nephew tugging at a pants leg, clamoring, “Look what I can do!” and flailing. All one can do is pat the tot on the head and smiled amusedly.
What’s a live gig if there aren’t smiles, anyway? Opener Deerhoof provided plenty of those. Its profoundly perplexing avant-garde sound goes over a lot of people’s heads, but this was definitely the right forum for the San Francisco band. It probably helped that half the audience was baked, rolling or shroomin’ off their gourds, but even to the sober, Deerhoof’s oeuvre is a wondrous challenge to behold.
Singer/bassist Satomi Matsuzaki chirped in Japanese, English and Spanish while drummer Greg Saunier brilliantly spazzed out. The axe men, John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez, followed suit, blasting out cacophonic riffs that on the surface sound like a garbled mess. But this is freeform jazz to the max. It’s as though Sonic Youth copulated with Hella and gave birth to the sprite that is Matsuzaki. Her interpretive dances ranged from aerobics to can-can to the Charleston. “The Evolution of Dance” guy has nothing on her.
And the grips of normalcy have nothing on Of Montreal. This concert was a circus, and that is meant in only the best way. The amount of reverie (however drug-induced it was) at the gig rivaled a child’s awe at seeing his first trapeze act: It was high-flying and magical.
As the crowd filtered out, one woman was seen buttoning up her vintage dress. Just what the (witch) doctor ordered: a real chance to let loose. Tune in, turn on, drop doubt that good music will prevail.