Of Montreal’s career can be cleanly cleaved into three distinct categories. Emerging as part of the second-wave of Elephant 6 bands, the first incarnation of the Kevin Barnes-fronted band recorded a handful of acoustic-skewing and schizo albums, split between tiny indies Bar/None and Kindercore. Heavily inspired by the Beatles and Barnes’ own theatrical leanings, the records attracted the Athens, Ga. band a modest, cult fanbase.
2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic found the band upgrading to mid-sized indie, Polyvinl and undergoing a significant stylistic shift. Paring giddy drum machines, a garish flirtation with electronica and a golden, psychedelic tint to Barnes’ perpetual Fab Four infatuation, Of Montreal produced its finest work yet. The follow-up, 2005’s, The Sunlandic Twins, continued to dip towards a wired disco bliss and drew mixed reviews, some that chided Barnes for being in a rut. Arriving at a time when “angular post-punk” was the operative cliche, in hindsight, The Sunlandic Twins has aged remarkably well and without it, it’s highly possible that Mgmt would never have been promoted in the first place.
Then came last year’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer, the album which catapulted the band to a level of popularity almost unimaginable for an indie group not on Saddle Creek, Sub Pop, Matador or Merge. Perhaps the band’s most consistently realized work, Barnes’ songwriting grew more personal and direct, particularly on the record’s centerpiece, the nearly 12 minute long, “The Past is a Grotesque Animal–” a brilliant break-up ballad so painfully emo that it ensured that it would appeal to two very important demographics: 14-year old girls (see above) and music critics. On-stage, Barnes grew almost cartoonishly outlandish, performing as his alter ego, a middle-aged black she-male named Georgie Fruit. Wearing make-up, sequined outfits, wedding dresses and constructing elaborately surreal sets, the band finally emerged. As did Barnes, who decided to famously whip it out on-stage in Febuary of last year. Yes, it.
Thus, watching an Of Montreal concert today feels like a cross between a Ted Haggerty-led revival, a wrap party for suburban kids in a 9th grade production of The Wiz, and a Queen concert, had Freddie Mercury & Co. been born 20 years later and gotten their start as a Prince cover band.
If you were a 17-year old, sexually confused kid on ecstasy, it stands within reason that Saturday night’s show at the Palladium would’ve ranked as one of the greatest moments of your entire life. And I’m sure the couple of Hello Kitty and the hipster Phantom of the Opera (see above) were pleased. In fact, most of the under-21 set didn’t stop dancing from the moment Barnes came out on-stage, garbed in purple pants, a sequined blouse and surrounded by rock people who vaguely resembled the Grecian chorus in Mighty Aphrodite.
By now, Of Montreal’s stage show has blown up to such absurd pomp that it threatens to overshadow the music. Which is sort of a shame, because only a handful of songwriters have written as many good songs over the course of this decade than Kevin Barnes. Yet most of the crowd is there for the vaudevillian camp; this is arena-rock for hipster teens. In another lifetime, its not unimaginable to think that half these kids would’ve been die-hard Kiss fans, or at least The Village People.
Barnes isn’t the only one in on the act, as you might be able to tell from Of Montreal’s drummer, clearly striving for that Coco B. Ware meets Roman Legionnaire look that’s been so hot this fall.
Yet the 34-year old frontman was clearly the show’s star, vamping for the crowd, whipping them into a statutory sexual frenzy. It’s sort of an odd combination, as prototypical objects of teenage adulation tend to skew younger and scragglier, not like the gaunt and girlish Barnes, his paper-thin hair worn in a neat side-part. But as the gremlin-like Lil Wayne has recently proved, anyone can be a sex symbol if they play the part and Barnes successfully packages it to the kids. So to speak.
The band’s set focused heavily off their latest record, Skeletal Lamping, a more scattered affair, but one not without its charms. Flitting back and forth between gaudy dance work outs, a surprisingly deep funk and occasional pyrotechnic guitar solo, Of Montreal displayed an impressive range. Deploying his Purple One-aping falsetto to the crowd’s delight, there were tiger masks, cartoons, a weird skit featuring Barnes as a priest with a sexy nun; it recalled an Amsterdam sex show as interpreted by Stephen Sondheim. The kids loved it.
Hell, even the corpse of Andy Warhol seemed to have a good time.