Pre-concert, I’d have described myself as having a casual familiarity with Of Montreal’s music: I’ve listened to a couple of their albums once or twice, and there are a few songs I listen to more frequently. But seeing them live on Tuesday at The Haunt piqued my interest in the band to a whole new level: their show was just as much a theatrical performance and psychedelic experience as a concert, adding a whole new layer to my perception of them as artists.
The night started with opener Surface to Air Missive, a Tallahassee-based southern rock band whose sound was pleasant and uplifting. Their crystal clear, sunshiney riffs and high vocals created a very 70s-era sound reminiscent of the Allman Brothers and the Byrds. Their collective appearance as a band was a just-rolled-out-of-bed-in-my-polo look — a casual simplicity which created all the more of a contrast once Of Montreal took the stage.
Of Montreal’s set began as un-casually as possible: A man in a spandex bodysuit of human muscles opened the show with a hilariously sincere and impassioned monologue about how we should all be more like fish. (So we can be free!) I’m fairly sure this was David Barnes, brother of the band’s frontman, and the artist who has designed most of of Montreal’s psychedelic album art.
Barnes skulked off the stage and the Of Montreal founder, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Kevin Barnes hopped on. Barnes performs in a Bowie-like androgynous glam persona — he was sporting glittery turquoise eyeshadow, a red Michael Jackson-esque suit over a shiny red halter top and his signature asymmetrical haircut. His movement on the stage and facial expressions were all very theatrical and exaggerated, and his stage presence was my favorite part of the show.
Of Montreal’s sound is like a modern, alt-pop revival of 60s psychedelic music. Their songs are an upbeat menagerie of synths, melodic keyboards, groovy bass and distorted guitars, complete with Barnes’ unique vocals. I thought his voice had more depth and emotion live than it does when recorded, as he transitioned effortlessly between a soothing, nasally mid-tone, impossibly pure and clear high-notes and rattling screams.
A defining part of the performance was its continual, eye-popping visuals: Every song featured a different projector-screen lightshow of violently bright, pulsating colors, shapes and collages of images — some political, most purely for visual effect, that flashed across the stage, the band members and the crowd. It was like literally stepping inside of one of their music videos.
The performance was also hugely surreal: Driven not just by the lights but also by an array of strange characters that would join the band onstage to dance during songs and interact with the members, changing costumes between songs. Costumes included towering, cape-wearing skull-heads, wide-eyed poodles “stripping” out of their body suits, tan plastic masked faces with scraggly blonde wigs, a sexy Abraham Lincoln, an Animal Farm-looking pig mask and many more.
Throughout the entire show I was hoping they would play a song of theirs that frequently makes it onto my playlists: “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal.” And they played it as the last song of their encore, which obviously made the night for me. While Of Montreal is known for lyrics addressing dark subject matter put to upbeat instrumentals, this song stands out from their repertoire because it is a dark song that sounds exactly how it makes you feel, with lyrics like “It’s so embarrassing to need someone like I do you,” “At least I author my own disaster” and “We want our film to be beautiful, not realistic.” Musically it is a relentlessly tense song, creating a sense of agitation and anxiety with its quick staccato riff that carries you through the entire twelve minutes — picking up pace, but never quite coming to the instrumental release you are expecting. After a show full of more upbeat, dancing songs and hilarious farcical moments (like Donald Trump’s sneering face flashing on the stage and disappearing just as quickly), it was the perfect song to both showcase their musical power and bring the crowd back down to reality.