Of Montreal's performance at Higher Ground would have been great if they played longer and let the music fully unfold. Once things really got cooking, they said goodnight. It was about a half hour shy of midnight and the heart of Saturday night was just starting to beat out loud when the house lights came on, last call was made and a disgruntled staff began sweeping up confetti, feathers and empty cups off the floor -- perfectly disguised like an epic party just went down.
When they took the stage it wasn't immediate -- it took a few songs before the band really started to gel and the songs began to pop. It was surprising that it ended just when it felt like it was propelling to that next level, especially knowing this band is heavily experimental and has a lot of material.
But what they did do in their 90 minute set -- besides putting on a highly entertaining show that felt like the super-duper circus just came to town -- was make a bold statement about how unique they sound. I heard a lot of descriptions from friends and acquaintances throughout the night while it was all going down, everything from "it's like Prince and disco" during one song, to "It's like the Talking Heads meets Television" during another. And then there were the general statements like "they remind of the Flaming Lips" to even "they're modern day indie pop wrapped around 1980's new wave and abstract 1990's shoegaze," or something to that effect, whatever that means. You can only shrug your shoulders and respond "sure" in skeptical agreement. Perhaps there's a hint of all of the above as reference points, but digging down deep there's a lot more there too. When you have that much different sound being tossed at you over the course of an evening, it is what it is: Of Montreal.
The band moves together in a funky, but non-obvious sounding way -- the grooves are dense, but creep up on you with amazing subtlety. I noticed every tune not only had a killer bass line, but a distinct one. Every musician has their part to carefully layer the sound -- clean point, counterpoint guitar rhythms, heavy synthesizers, and an array of sounds you're not even sure where they're coming from -- it's a nice mind fuck of sonic manipulation, with nobody stepping out too far into the forefront or overplaying. And compositionally, they oftentimes burst open the typical song formation with odd changes and shifts that would keep you on your toes. And out in front is Kevin Barnes leading the band through each song, looking and singing like he's from the future.
The stage backdrop was a large projection that mostly showed a distorted video stream of the band playing from different angles. There's was one image that appeared with colorful, animated flowers spinning like pinwheels and what appeared to be a dinosaur eating them -- it was beautifully psychedelic. As much as projections enhanced the performance, most eyes were focused on Barnes. With his crazy blue and white multi-tiered futuristic shirt and his eyes masked with matching blue makeup, he looks a lot like his lyrics: he's ready to get freaky on your ass. But at the same time, wipe off the makeup and put the guy in a suit and he looks like my economist friend who only goes for it secretly on the weekend. There's something charming about that perception, that there is a thirst to perform and make it sensational. And for fuck sake, make it entertaining. It's in the air when they perform, to make people feel more adventurous, to shock and get the audience out of their comfort zone. Just like rock music is supposed to.
It's a lot like seeing an improvisational band, where you don't know what's going to happen next. Of Montreal taps into that aspect of performance mostly with theatrical stunts that accompany the music. It's a thrill to be in the audience and not know what kind of stuff they're going to pull out: are they going to light something on fire? Whip their dicks out? You know, rock 'n' roll sensationalism. Hopefully you feel anxious, uncomfortable, and of course, some form of joy. At least feel like the performance took you on a ride.
The band did have a few of those moments at Higher Ground that ignited the senses, creating visual stimulation, skin crawling awkwardness and a touch of enjoyable perversity. About every other song featured two guys that would hop up onstage with different costumes, prance around and interact with one of the band members, mostly Barnes. There were the red-robed samurais' with swords and nuclear war gas masks on. And there was the pig masks and pink tights segment. And then there were the straightjackets with bleeding mouths part of the show. The music was pumping out really loud without being too abrasive, while these various costumed performers would shoot out smoke, confetti and feathers into the audience.
But by the end of the night, it felt like the performance was too honed in. The spontaneity of it felt lost to the calculated stage antics. Things felt like they were drifting more into the unknown late in the set when they expanded the newer number "Sex Karma," but, again, it felt like that was when the show should have just been getting going, not coming to a close. There's the old adage of "Leave them longing for more" when it comes to putting on a show, but that's not what this felt like, especially for a band that is so psychedelic, has great grooves and is completely in touch with their collective weird. What it did feel like was they were really close to having a deeper connection with their audience, that it begs the question: why leave when the party and music was just starting to happen?