Janelle Monae and Of Montreal at First Avenue, 9/23/10

Photos by Stacy Schwartz
Of Montreal and Janelle Monae
September 23, 2010
First Avenue, Minneapolis

Much like Janelle Monae's performance earlier this year at the Varsity Theater, it took the funk-fusion diva a few songs to fully engage with the audience, but once she was halfway into her set she had the whole room on fire. And much like that fateful night at the Varsity, Prince showed up to watch her play, making it the third time this year that the Purple One has dropped into the First Avenue Mainroom to take in a show.

This time, instead of clearing out the entire balcony (like he did at the Varsity) or emptying First Ave's owner's box (like he did at the Current's 5th birthday party), Prince brought an entire posse and chilled in a crowd of people near the lighting board of the owner's box for the entirety of Monae's set, once again sending rumors throughout Twitter and chatter throughout the crowd.

But the real star was Monae, playing from an extended stage that brought her closer to the center of the room, who ran head-first through a high-concept performance that flooded the stage with backup dancers dressed in a nun's habit and a burqa one moment and stripped everything down to just her and her guitarist the next, as she paused to sing a breathtaking version of "Smile."

Janelle Monae and Of Montreal at First Avenue, 9/23/10

Photos by Stacy Schwartz

The energy came back up again for the more uptempo section of her set, including a duet with Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes on "Make the Bus" and a back-to-back performances of her radio hits "Cold War" and "Tightrope," which got the young audience screaming and bouncing up and down. Monae even performed her own encore of sorts, and it was clear from her lengthy hour-and-15-minute set and friendship with Barnes that the two bands were co-headlining the venue.

As a First Ave employee swept up the first round of confetti from the stage and the audience paused to catch its breath, there was a palpable excitement in the air over what might come next. Both acts are known for their phenomenal live shows, but nothing could have really prepared the crowd for the surprises Of Montreal would pull out during their performance.

The set started with a backing band of seven taking the stage dressed in all white suits and white facepaint, standing stoically behind their instruments as two giant fishhead monsters with gas masks lumbered around the stage with machine guns and shot at a pair young skeleton-head kids in footie pajamas.

Wait, what?

Janelle Monae and Of Montreal at First Avenue, 9/23/10

Exactly. The crux of Of Montreal's performance relies on these sweeping vignettes of performance art, acted out by a troupe of four dancers who must have been furiously changing costumes backstage the entire night. Soon lead singer Kevin Barnes burst through the fishheads and bounded to the center of the stage, dressed like an '80s bohemian woman who forgot to put on her pants and instead opted to wear a flimsy see-through apron over her flimsy see-through leggings.

Once Barnes was on stage, it was impossible to look away, and his energy never let up during their hour-and-a-half performance. Lanky and animated, Barnes bopped through opening song "Coquet Coquette" effortlessly, sending a vital energy through the whole room that would pulsate throughout the entire set.

Janelle Monae and Of Montreal at First Avenue, 9/23/10

Janelle Monae and Of Montreal at First Avenue, 9/23/10

Despite the flamboyant and sometimes jarring stage antics (a pair of quarreling pigs being taught how to get it on, a squad of ninjas diving into the crowd to surf, the skeleton-head children returning to watch TV), the focus somehow, magically, stayed trained on the music and Barnes, who held the audience rapt like the master of ceremonies at a fucked up Disneyland parade.

Barnes barely spoke between songs, only pausing once to introduce his "best friend" Janelle Monae back to the stage for another duet, but he didn't have to talk in order to engage the crowd. Of Montreal's music is a flurry of dizzying beats and basslines, and the musicians bandied elastically between slow R&B jams, breakneck dance music, and way-out-there psych-pop, keeping the ears just as stimulated as the eyes as they plowed from song to song.

By the finale, it was pure sensory overload as a pair of torpedo-head monsters shot feathers into the crowd and a giant lightblub-head dude got the crowd screaming for an encore. The band returned with all of Janelle Monae's crew, including her sound guy, on stage for a triple-whammy of Michael Jackson's "Thriller," "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," and "Pretty Young Thing" that left the entire room sweaty, smiling, and stunned.

Well played, Of Montreal. Well played.

Janelle Monae and Of Montreal at First Avenue, 9/23/10

Reporter's bias: Really, I don't think you could bring much bias to this show... unless you hate fun.
The crowd: Young and ready to party.
Overheard in the crowd: "I learned how to do this last night at Flaming Lips." --Strib music critic Chris Riemenschneider, as he eagerly picked up balloons off the floor and bopped them back into the crowd.
Random notebook dump: Something that really fascinated me was the androgynous nature of both Barnes and Monae, who do a remarkable job of eschewing typical rock gender stereotypes in favor of fearless, fully-realized self-expression.
For more photos: See our complete slideshow by Stacy Schwartz.

Of Montreal set list:

Janelle Monae and Of Montreal at First Avenue, 9/23/10

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