Discotheque in Drag: Of Montreal at the Metro

A red satanic pentagram beamed in front of us as a group of men in black cloaks walked across the stage. This, of course, meant time for dancing.

Of Montreal kicked off their set with “it’s different for girls” from their 14th record Innocence Reaches that they released last month. With plenty of upbeat, disco-inflected electronic dance music, Of Montreal electrified an otherwise quiet Monday night at the Metro.

Frontman Kevin Barnes cross-dressed in elaborate costumes throughout the night, often gliding offstage to change outfits and makeup while the band transitioned into the next song’s groove. This was discotheque in drag.

For a man now in his 40s, Barnes can still bust moves on stage that rival other prolific frontmen from the 1990s, namely Beck. But of course, you don’t go see Of Montreal for just his dancing.

Yes, you go to Of Montreal for Barnes’s dancing and for the possum suits, and the stripper cops, and the cross-dressing, and the balloons, and the feathers shot through the crowd, and the projector images of vulvas and skin cells, and their delectable candy-glazed music.

You go for a very sexualized performance devoid of sensuality.

And we all go to concerts to see the bands we like but seeing Of Montreal isn’t just going to a concert. It’s live theater: it’s like seeing Rock Horror at a dance party.

Of Montreal celebrates the spectacle. Unlike traditional rock concerts, Barnes’s madman project triggers many more senses in the audience than sound and they interact with the crowd with more than just getting them to head-bob occasionally. Choreographed dancers launch feathers into the air, or throw balloons toward the crowd, or run onstage in a penis costume with a Donald Drumpf mask, or stop at stage center with a uterus and fallopian tubes for a face.

Seeing Of Montreal is like eating superman ice-cream colors dipped in rainbow sprinkles. It’s not bad. It can be good. But they’re the masters of “muchness.”

But while Of Montreal prioritized performance, they distracted the audience away from the music. If you’re a fan of the songs, the constant barrage of spectacle became distracting. They rely on smoke and mirrors — or more aptly, fog machines and projectors — to the point where the concert is about the hijinks and gags instead of the music.

Instead of pulling songs from the band’s large catalog from 14 albums in the past 20 years, Barnes mostly performed from the recent record (which is to be expected), 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, a mighty handful from Skeletal Lamping, and just a few from False Priest. The result? Largely the same electronic and drum beats in, roughly, the same 140 beats-per-minute tempo.

The Metro made Barnes’s reverberated vocals audible, but most of the guitars and the shiny, baroque keys on songs like “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse” were not. It lacked the crispness that helps tie together that slough of records.

Still, no other band goes so far over the top, except for a few outliers like the Flaming Lips. And as funky and dancey their music is, Of Montreal pays their homage to Bowie. After ending the set with a “it’s different for girls” reprise, the band came back onstage to cover Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” and then they headed right into Prince’s “1999.” These music artists may have died this past year, but their influences are well alive.

It’s fun. It’s theater. It’s spectacle. But Of Montreal is relying too heavily on the sounds, if not the same songs, as their masterful record from nearly ten years ago.

Chicago Photographer Steve Stearns provided photos for this article.

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Colin Smith

Colin Smith thinks that Chicago right now is the place to be for music. He works for Illinois Humanities, is a freelance writer, and plays psychedelic-pop songs with his band.