Of Montreal, Janelle Monae Numbers November 4, 2010
At ACL we lamented that The Flaming Lips performances have evolved to be less about the music and more about the floor show. You know what you're getting when you pay for a Lips concert ticket - Wayne Coyne will get in the hamster ball and bounce around the crowd, just like you know the Rolling Stones are always going to play "Satisfaction". It's part of the performer/audience contract.
But why does it have to be? Last night at Numbers, as we were watching Janelle Monae and of Montreal writhe around on stage with a band of full-body-condomed dancers behind them, we felt the annoyance creeping in. It's goes hand-in-hand with something else that's been bothering us lately, the ubiquity of the encore. Not every two-bit band who comes through town deserves an encore.
Encores used to be a treat, an exercise in spontaneity and critical mass brought on by the applause of the mob. Now they're not just expected, they're practically required. Just once Aftermath would like to see a band walk off stage at the end of their show and be done with it.
Sigh. What exactly is our point here?
Janelle Monae can sing. And girl can dance. And anyone who has heard and fell in love with her hit "Tightrope" still has no idea of the breadth of her talent and the genres she glides smoothly between. Her opening number sounded like a techno dance party, and at first Aftermath thought she might be lip-syncing, her delivery was so quick and en pointe.
She rolled through her first three offerings without stopping while her band of dancers took to the crowd with white-gloved hands holding tambourines. Later, they returned to the stage wearing nun habits. The crowd went crazy.
If you were paying attention to the music, though, you would have heard the familiar notes of Chic, '60s French pop, James Brown (duh) and '80s techno. That's the thing. There is too much else going on on stage, and with Monae's personal mythology, it's difficult to let the music stand on it's own. Her complicated concept of an android alter-ego who comes to Earth to save the human race, the way she dances/acts out the lyrics to each song, the James Brown cape schtick -- it's really all too much.
Because when she performed "Smile" halfway through her set, just her and her guitarist, the audience was perfectly content with only the sound of her voice. Amazingly, no one even talked through the song.
Just to hear her was all we needed. And when she did "Cold War," the second to the last song, with images of Cassius Clay behind her as she extolled "You better know what you're fighting for," it became clear that the message she wants to get across rings true with or without that plot-heavy backstory and obvious onstage imagery.
The last time Aftermath saw of Montreal, it was nearly eight years ago at the Opolis in Oklahoma City. The band was touring in support of Aldhils Arboretum, and back then they really were a band, not the Kevin Barnes Ego Show. Now, when they perform, Dottie Alexander and Bryan Poole are banished to the outskirts of the stage to make room for the goldfish head-wearing dancers who lavish lust upon singer Barnes, acting out whatever complicated concept his latest album is meant to illustrate.
Aftermath could go on and on, but we won't. See, the thing is we *like* of Montreal. Barnes' Prince-wail and cockiness on stage (not to mention his rapport with adoring fans) reminds us of some of our favorite artists of yore, but we'd much rather listen to an album than see the ridiculous spectacle on stage. It's too much glitter. It's too distracting. Too high-concept. When did the music become secondary to the performance? And why?
After dousing the audience with a storm of white feathers during "A Sentence Of Sorts In Kongsvinger" (Barnes: "Doesn't it feel like Christmas?"), the band came out for an encore. (Duh.) Barnes had changed from his marching band jacket into a grey hoodie, and while they performed "The Past is a Grotesque Animal" he unzipped it to reveal a shirtless chest.
He writhed around on stage, thrashed at and threw his guitar, wailed a primal scream and then let the band finish their thing. The crowd went absolutely apeshit. And there were no costumed characters on stage, no confetti, no effects. Just a band, bleeding their heart out in song, a pure expression of emotion without theatrics to hide behind, and it was the best moment of the night.
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Personal Bias: Love Janelle Monae, like of Montreal a lot. Just can't get into the circus of it all.
The Crowd: Well behaved, thank God, with some much older faces (read: 50-plus) than we expected
Overheard In the Crowd: "I'm a smart girl, I know what I'm getting myself into. (Slurred)
Random Notebook Dump: "The top-hatted 'voodoo god' from Blondie's 'Rapture' video just walked by me."