When the live music selection in Ithaca, especially on a Wednesday night, lets you down, the first thing I’d recommend before calling it an early night is check out what’s happening in cities a half gas tank away. Last week, after gathering the crucial and most basic ingredients for any road trip, like booze, four friends and myself headed to Clinton, New York, about an hour and a half west of here, to see Of Montreal perform at Hamilton College. While Clinton isn’t exactly the most promising place for a night out, the kids there clearly have their live music priorities in order, featuring an outstanding line-up of medium acts they bring to campus fairly regularly. For example, last semester the student group Independent Music Fund brought solo soul phenom Jamie Lidell and just a few weeks ago, Mates of State. The best (or worst) part is — no one at Hamilton seems to care very much even though the shows are entirely free for them, so it’s a perfect place to catch talented groups up close where, just inches away, they sometimes look into your eyes for approval.
In 2005, Of Montreal visited Ithaca thanks to our very own Fanclub Collective. Although the band has remained almost unchanged since then, the addition of a new album Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? and the few years in between since last seeing them has made the group almost unrecognizable. As I remember, the Cornell show was one of those shows you’ll never forget – two hours of well-constructed, well-played,and accessible rock and roll that is almost impossible to stand still to. Besides instruments and the people that play them, the only things there that could have distracted from the essence of the music were a few gold stars on lead singer Kevin Barnes’s right cheek.
Of Montreal seems to have forgotten these good old days of touring in a van, making people dance, and playing live music that shows us why they’re more than just a tightly-choreographed studio band. At Hamilton, the music took a back seat to the schtick du jour; three enormous screens were unfurled minutes before the set began, and during the songs, different art projections were displayed there, even if they were nothing but distractions. Gigantic props and gags littered the set; everything from a Kerberos (three-headed dog) puppet to a man wearing a white spandex jumpsuit lusciously munching on grapes were brought on stage.
And the music? We might as well just stayed home. For some reason I’ll never understand, Of Montreal shies away from real drummers and prefers instead the pre-programmed disaster that drum loops are. A drum loop of a set length is an enormous constraint on a live performance — guitar solos have to be exactly so long, and forget about jamming under that beautiful three-part harmony for a few more minutes. Rather, when Kevin Barnes said so, the band was off, playing songs exactly the way they sound on Of Montreal’s studio albums — and even though the music is legendary, there were enough diversions to make any purist tremble with fear. Add to this a crowd that just won’t dance and — well — even your favorite band can put on a bad show sometimes.
Barnes left the crowd with a request: “Let’s take lots of hardcore drugs and fuck like wildebeests.” All I could stammer in response was, “What happened?”