For a band whose roster shape-shifts as frequently as the psychedelic visuals of their live shows, the one constant for Of Montreal has been flamboyant songwriter and frontman Kevin Barnes. Whether as himself or alter ego Georgie Fruit, Barnes’ vivid imagination has spawned 11 albums in the band’s 15-year existence and, along with his brother David, has crafted album cover art with some of the trippiest imagery this side of a K-hole.
Of Montreal sold out Portland’s Crystal Ballroom well in advance of their March 23rd show. When I arrived at the venue, the main floor was already teeming. As I made my way to the balcony seating, Kishi Bashi, a multi-instrumentalist for the headliners, tinkered with various gadgets while performing songs from his own solo project. With loop pedals, distorted violin, beatboxing and falsetto vocals, Kishi Bashi got plenty of love from the audience and had a one-man Sigur Rós/Reggie Watts thing going for him. Of the three acts that would take the stage that night, he was the only one to engage the audience with meaningful banter. After a short break, Deerhoof followed and played an energetic if uninteresting set that served as good background noise for a trip to the bar.
Of Montreal made their way onto the stage at 11 on the nose (exactly as advertised on the bar-top placards). Barnes was dressed to the nines as usual, adorned in a silver suit with scarlet shirt. He took his place behind a keyboard stationed at the front of the cluttered stage, his menagerie of seven other musicians positioned behind him. Four large video screens hung alongside and above the band. Distortion echoed throughout the venue for a full minute and, as Barnes finally wailed the opening refrain, “Speak to me” — from “Gelid Ascent”, the introductory track on recently released Paralytic Stalks — acid-trip visuals poured across stage and screen.
Of Montreal stuck with the new album for their second song “Spiteful Intervention.” This verbose track finds Barnes at his most tortured jubilance. It fit nicely, with Barnes lamenting, “I spend my waking hours/ Haunting my own life/ I’ve made the one I love start crying tonight/ And it felt good/ Still, there must be a more elegant solution.” During the interlude, Barnes grabbed giant mesh sacks of balloons from the scurrying stagehands and tossed them into the outstretched arms of the audience.
For the most part, the band stuck to their newer stuff. During much of the three-song diversion into offerings from False Priest (2010) – spearheaded by the wonderfully titled “Godly Intersex” – Barnes manned the tambourine. Throughout the vibrant show, stagehands bedecked head to heel in black or white Lycra routinely crept onstage to manipulate elaborate puppets, creating the husks of surreal creatures that could pass for something out of Stephen King’s The Mist.
For the second half of their set, Of Montreal finally delved back into the bounce and pulse of the beloved Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (2007) with a lively version of “She’s a Rejecter” and, later, a raucous rendition of “Suffer for Fashion.” To add to the visual and sonic pandemonium near the end of the first set, guitarist Bryan Poole (who looks almost exactly like the mustachioed, bass-playing Muppet Sgt. Floyd Pepper) jumped into the anemone of arms and crowd-surfed with his axe in hand. The band closed out the set with “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” a dark and dirty dance fest that left the crowd sweat-drenched and salivating.
Before the band returned for their encore, costume pigs took the stage and used raised and lowered hooves to modulate the volume of the audience’s cheers. During a meandering Skeletal Lamping medley to open the encore, a jellyfish-like puppet rose overhead as Barnes sang, “I’m a motherfucking headline and, bitch, you don’t even know it.” The encore closed out predictably, and sublimely, with old favorites “The Gronlandic Edit” and the somewhat whimsical and light-noted “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger.” While the band could’ve benefited from dipping a bit deeper into their catalog (I would have loved to hear a track or two from Satanic Panic in the Attic or The Sunlandic Twins), Of Montreal put on the kind of musically diverse and solid performance they’re known for. The visual cornucopia was an added bonus.