Friday Night: Of Montreal's Superheated Libido Creeps Out the Warfield

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Richard Haick
Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes
Of Montreal
Janelle Monae
October 29, 2010
@ The Warfield


Better than: Taking a bad batch of mushrooms and becoming embroiled in a group-sex scandal.

Can we just start by saying that Janelle Monae is shitting mental? 'Cause she is. And her opening set tonight is just the start of an evening of bizarre amateur dramatics that feel very much like an acid trip, taken in the '70s, that repeats on you for years to come. One bonus is that when Monae is being a freak, it's a joy to watch; when the members of Of Montreal are being freaks, it feels a little bit like coming home one day and finding your brother in the midst of a creepy orgy that (a) you don't want to take part in, and (b) you never wanted to know about in the first place.

So let's start with Monae's hour-long opening opus, and say that this set has everything. Seriously. Orchestral old-school Bond-movie moments, zombie monks in Phantom Of The Opera masks, dancing nuns, endless theatrics, sci-fi overtones, James Brown tributes, true and consistent showmanship, bone-rattlingly loud bass, bizarre painting-related outbursts, capes, and, above all, sweet, sweet soul music, fresh funk and a voice that could melt the heavens. We know this because at one point, during the end of "Smile," Monae lowers her microphone to her waist and her pitch-perfect vocal still echoes all the way up to the top of the dome of The Warfield.

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Richard Haick
Janelle Monae
The reason people are yelling "You! Are! Awesome!" all the way through her set, is because Janelle Monae is -- yes, it's true -- totally awesome. And it's a privilege to see her here tonight because, trust us people, this charismatic chanteuse is destined for great, great things and will find herself in stadiums before long if she keeps this level of performance up.

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Richard Haick
Of Montreal
It's a hard act to follow, but those in Of Montreal are even more in favor of bizarre onstage displays than Monae is. The problem is, when they do it, it smacks of trying too damn hard. It is also more than a little creepy in places. Those already familiar with these Georgia flamboyants will know they're a little saucy; a little sexually obsessed, if you will. But having to watch on as frontman Kevin Barnes repeatedly grabs his crotch, pretends to punch stage extras in the groin, thrusts into the face of the crowd, and -- yes, this actually happens -- simulates having sexual intercourse with pigs (among other items) is painful. That's before we even get to the faux-blowing of some random shirtless dude, writhing around with a guy in a straight-jacket, and riding a five-person dragon beast. It all feels rather contrived, rather than being some daring exploration into the human psyche. And don't even get us started on the brawling aliens in silver body suits, the portable hospital bed, and, at one particularly disturbing point, staged sexual molestation performed by multiple men in giant helmets. 

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Richard Haick
Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes
This is by no means a boring show. But it's not a particularly satisfying one either. The best moment comes when Barnes hands his mic to audience members and lets them sing along, one by one. It finally engages the people here, rather than merely clubbing them over the head with bizarre sexual imagery, which is the sole purpose of much of this set. 
Barnes comes off not as a sexy challenge, but rather that creepy guy on your Bart train home who won't leave you alone when you just want to listen to your music and relax. Sure they have bouncy, feel-good moments, and this sort of synth-pop dance mastery is a great soundtrack to the impromptu Halloween dance party that's happening tonight. But unsettling your audience to this degree means no one actually gets to absorb or enjoy any musical happenings on display. Aside from anything else, Of Montreal's set is simply too long -- an hour and forty-five minutes -- so by the end of it, it's not even shocking anymore -- merely played-out.

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Richard Haick
Of Montreal
This entire night is about campy theatrics and bizarre fantasy world imagery -- it's just unfortunate that the opening act did it in a more cohesive, classy and artistic way than Of Montreal did.

Critic's Notebook

Overheard during Janelle Monae's set:
"Dude! This is ridiculous. I don't know what that woman's doing! ...But I do know that I like it!"
"I'm glad we're seeing her at The Warfield because this is definitely the smallest venue we're ever gonna see her in. I bet she'll be the new Lady Gaga in a couple of years."

Overheard during Of Montreal's set:
"Man, this is going on for a really long time. I don't have a TV right now so I could use some sort of entertainment tonight, but I just don't want it to be... this."
"This is like an All Ages Exotic Erotic Ball. Or like a fucked up combination of Prince and Rocky Horror and Barney."

Personal bias: All I can think about is that YouTube video for "Being A Dickhead's Cool" -- especially the line, "Indeterminate sexual preference/ Something retro on my necklace." Ugh.

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