Of Montreal and Janelle Monáe at Pabst Theater
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In the summer of 1967, a little-known guitarist named Jimi Hendrix opened a series of concerts for the “Pre-Fab Four,” the Monkees. It was a disaster—Hendrix would leave the tour after just a handful of dates—and would go down as one of pop music’s most egregious opener and headliner pairings. Sadly, Friday’s Of Montreal/Janelle Monáe show at the Pabst Theater was similarly lopsided. Simply put, opener Monáe was electric while headliner Of Montreal was anything but. Deep into year three of its funk/glam/R&B makeover, the once brilliant Athens, Georgia group showed signs of fatigue, and came across as nothing more than a group of indie kids playing pretend. Hey, hey, we’re a glam band.
The story of Of Montreal is a story of two groups. For nearly 15 years and 20-odd albums, principle singer and songwriter Kevin Barnes excelled at the art of crafting twee, narrative-heavy psychedelia. Though a sea change could be detected as early as 2004’s Satanic Panic In The Attic, it wasn’t until 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? that Barnes and company went full-funk. Songs about peacock parasols and gay parades were long gone, and were replaced by warmed-over porno music and JV-level double entendres. While the band has enjoyed newfound success post-mutation, its musical output is now more adequate than brilliant.
“Adequate” would certainly be the word to describe Of Montreal’s performance Friday night. Opener “Coquet Coquette” started things off nicely, but later numbers like “Hydra Fancies” and “Godly Intersex” were hampered by their unfortunate transformations into limp jams. “Sex Karma” sounded fine, and the terrific “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse” delivered a much-needed jolt of energy, but the set as a whole seemed uninspired and predictable. Outside on the lobby merch table, the band hawked nearly every album from its extensive back catalog; why it bothered was a mystery, since virtually all of Friday night’s selections were from 2007 onward.
For all the breathless talk of Of Montreal’s wild theatrics and pageantry, the evening’s stage show was shockingly dull. Aside from a few interesting moments—a video-projected performance of Sibylle Baier’s “Tonight” was effective—the group’s vaunted stage shtick consisted of little more than bizarre, costumed characters (giant fish head dudes, giant skull head dudes, etc.) slowly walking on from stage left, milling about for a minute or two, and walking off. (At least another group known for its stage shenanigans, The Flaming Lips, has the balls to keep its costumed entourage on stage and dancing for an entire two-hour set.) Disjointed and underwhelming, Friday night’s stage show was a flaccid disappointment. Call it Ziggy Stardust for dummies.
Even worse was Of Montreal’s stage presence. With his backing band delegated to the rear and sides of the stage, Barnes was left alone in the middle, appearing strangely diminutive and lost. Dressed in a red mini-skirt, orange tights, and green boots, the 36-year-old may have looked the part, but did little to earn the title of engaging frontman. Some lighting issues didn’t help—a roadie was constantly tinkering with what looked to be some malfunctioning footlights. Unfortunately, the problems were never resolved, and Barnes was often lost in shadow as he pranced about, essentially repeating the same embarrassing “dance move”—an awkward, loping strut—for the duration of the show.
Monáe, on the other hand, was incredible. Living up to every last ounce of hype she’s received in the past year, the Diddy-approved singer threw the Pabst’s capacity crowd into an absolute frenzy. Comparisons to another high-concept, art-damaged songstress seemed apt, though Monáe’s effortlessly magnetic presence and incredible voice would seem to put her in another league altogether. Late in her set, Barnes joined the 24-year-old for a duet. Beaming beneath his heavy makeup, the Of Montreal frontman acted as if he was doing his opener a favor. Based on the evidence of Friday night’s show, it was clearly the other way around.