Prolific glam-pop band Of Montreal always promises an intensely visual concert experience. With past shows that have featured dancers dressed as enormous pigs, live horses onstage, and a brief stint in Las Vegas where front man Kevin Barnes performed six shows entirely in the nude, you never know exactly what you’re signing up for when you buy your concert tickets. The Chicago performance of the band’s North American tour at the Vic Theater last Thursday didn’t disappoint; I’ll say upfront that while Barnes stayed clothed, he did change outfits three times.
Even disregarding Barnes’s abundance of (or as the case may be, lack of) apparel, Of Montreal strives for a visual aesthetic in their performances that places them in a class apart from other pop artists. The artistic motif of this tour, promoting the band’s new EP thecontrollersphere, can probably best be described as “America-themed.” Dancers pranced around onstage in latex American flag body suits while the show culminated in a frenetic solo violin hoe-down and the most chaotic and hard-core rendition of “America the Beautiful” I’ve ever heard.
In an interview with the online magazine The New Gay, the band’s artistic director (and Kevin Barnes’s brother) David Barnes said he envisioned the tour’s theme as a way of reclaiming the American flag—and with it the idea of patriotism from people who have a more narrow conception of what it means to be an American—and giving it back to the country as a whole.
Make of that what you will, but the performance did go beyond latex stars and stripes to remind us there’s more than one way to express patriotism. During the performance of “Gronlandic Edit,” a hit off the 2007 album Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destoyer?, backup dancers marched among the band members carrying banners emblazoned with gay pride slogans, staging their own three-minute gay civil rights protest. During one number the band was joined by dancers wearing fat suits made to look like Glenn Beck’s head. With the surge of patriotism following Osama bin Laden’s death coming smack-dab in the middle of the North American tour, the irony of the coincidental America theme may have been lost on the audience at the Vic, who at one point began enthusiastically chanting “U.S.A! U.S.A!” No matter: the dancer in the skintight American flag body suit joined them, pumping his arm good-naturedly.
The elaborate visuals served to enhance rather than distract from the music. (In addition to the Americana imagery, the show featured a revival of the giant pigs, silver-winged butterfly women, and some sort of gargantuan creature with one oversized lobster claw.) Almost the entire set was upbeat; the band opened with the funk-rock “L’age D’or,” a song from their new EP, then immediately launched into a smattering of high-energy hits from their past albums. The all-ages audience at the Vic ate it up; every few minutes the horde of teenage girls at the front would get a little more violent as they fell over themselves to get a split-second touch of Kevin Barnes’s hand.
I could understand why, too. He exudes charisma, even with (or perhaps because of) the drag outfits and circus-like performance antics. During “Oslo in the Summertime,” an eerie, catchy tune from the 2005 album The Sunlandic Twins, Barnes was at his most alluring, singing directly to the audience as the stage was bathed in a cascade of glittering lights. I did feel sort of old as the audience sang along to the most popular songs; I started listening to Of Montreal in middle school, when, from the looks of them, a lot of the kids in this audience were just getting into Sesame Street, possibly making Of Montreal their equivalent of The Beatles.
Still, one of the best moments of the night was when Of Montreal played a sped-up, frantic cover of the White Stripes song “Fell in Love with a Girl,” allowing us all to revel in gritty, hyper, early 2000s rock. This ode to a simlarly gimmicky band that recently officially announced their breakup left me crossing my fingers that Of Montreal won’t be headed on that path anytime soon. But with their crazy intense shows, willingness to take risks, and the arrival of a new EP that proves they’re “done fucking around” (in the words of music blog Sound of Consequence), I’m not too concerned for this band’s future.