Sneak preview: Ann Powers on Of Montreal's wild new show
When word got out last spring that the Athens, Ga.-based glam collective Of Montreal would be touring with Atlanta's rising soul goddess Janelle Monae in September, fans of freaky independent culture jumped for joy. Two sets of indie pop's most daring time-space continuum travelers, already known for collaborating on psychedelic funk jams and sharing Christmas dinners, would be pushing each other toward ever greater heights of spectacle, showing clubgoers that you don't have to be Gaga (or, to cite Kevin Barnes' stated current influence, P-Funk) to bring a universe alive onstage.
Performance gives the final breath of life to the musical visions of Barnes, who creates Of Montreal's recordings on his own and then fleshes them out with longtime collaborators. Of Montreal's 10th album, "False Priest," represents a new phase in Barnes' music-making process. He recorded the album on his own, then took it to Los Angeles-based music wizard Jon Brion; the two men worked with ace drummer Matt Chamberlain to give new cyborgian form to Barnes' melodic creations.
The result is music that's body-infectious and mind-ticklingly elaborate: the perfect soundtrack to a disco-punk extravaganza featuring mutant fish people, winged seductresses, caged cavewomen, headless eyeballs and a very large stuffed God.
Last week, I was lucky enough to witness a full dress rehearsal of the new Of Montreal show in a rented warehouse in Athens, where the band lives and works. It was the final night before the costumes would be packed up and readied for transport. Scattered throughout the space were fiberglass heads and iridescent bodysuits, making it look like a mythical battleground where all manner of exotic creatures had fought and fallen. Barnes' brother David, who serves as Of Montreal's concept artist (you can see him playing Kevin's final adversary in the crazy caveman epic that's the video for the new single "Coquet Coquette") advised band members and various friends as they worked to perfect these intricate homespun ensembles.
Then the show began -- I was delighted that they'd planned to run through the entire set, giving me a front row seat to what turned out to be a relentlessly stimulating, yet still organic-feeling parade of imagery from the depths of the Barnes brothers' psyches. Four dancers -- David, along with the group's tour manager Michael Wheeler, his sister Liz, and his partner Nikki Martin -- transformed themselves into characters that alternately attacked and seduced Kevin as he performed, with an expanded band churning out soul-power dance rock in a semi-circle behind him.
"Mostly it seems to be a show about rituals," said Martin during a break. "Every time we come out, we're a new tribe. The Builders, Fire Heads, the Silver Checker Heads. All the past Of Montreal shows have been very loose, but this one is more structured."
The performance will appeal most strongly to those who've familiarized themselves with "False Priest." Though there's no obvious narrative (as both Barnes brothers pointed out in a post-show interview) the parade of beings Kevin Barnes encounters evoke the tantalizing, dangerous seducers who haunt his new songs.
"We try to avoid any obvious connections to the lyrics," said Kevin, huddled on the warehouse's side staircase with his wife, Nina, and David after the performance.
"If you have that temptation -- if you think, oh, that's easy, it writes itself -- you know it's not the right idea," added David. "We lean more toward the emotion, the feel of the song. Or toward the music. Leaning toward the drumbeat, say."
The show also features an array of arresting video images, including portions that have Kevin standing offstage before a green screen so that he appears to be a disembodied head, and a short film directed by Nina that recalls Canadian auteur Guy Maddin's eerie surrealist cinema.
There's also a politicized moment or two -- especially at the show's climax, which features that massive deity, which resembles an overstuffed toy voodoo doll.
"It's making God say, 'All that stuff I said in the Old Testament? I made a mistake. You don't have to worship me. Worship each other.' Basically, it's setting the audience free," explained Kevin.
The singer serves as the center of the whorl of action around him, a task that, even for this high-energy fabulist, proves daunting. "I'm the James Brown in a way -- which is a heavy trip for me," said Kevin, invoking one of his many funk heroes. "I need to be dancing and really energetic the whole time, really pushing it. Luckily we're touring with Janelle, and she's going to hype us up. She'll raise the bar so high that if I don't want to look like a fool, I'l have to put some energy into it."
Of Montreal is collaborating with Monae's Wondaland Arts Society during the tour, sharing the stage on various songs throughout the set. The entourage brings the show to New York this weekend, but has time to work out the inevitable kinks in its grassroots extravaganza before bringing it to Los Angeles. Look for more on the show and on "False Priest" closer to the band's Oct. 30 Hollywood Palladium date.
-- Ann Powers
Photo: Of Montreal rehearsing in Athens, Ga., in early September. Credit: Jason Thrasher / courtesy Of Montreal