Of Montreal’s absurdly elaborate show at the Cedar makes other bands look lazy

Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes onstage at the Cedar last night.

Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes onstage at the Cedar last night. Caroline Royce

Of Montreal‘s steamy, ridiculous set at the Cedar Cultural Center on Tuesday helped us all forget, for a little while anyway, that it was snowing in April.

Here’s the short version: If you haven’t seen Of Montreal live, do so the next time they come through town. They will probably have another album out in 18 to 36 months (based on ringleader Kevin Barnes’ usual relentless pace), so you won’t need to wait too long. Please continue reading.

Of Montreal are touring behind White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood, their 15th album, which was inspired by extended dance remixes, feminist philosophy, and James Baldwin. On paper, it sounds like a difficult slog of an album: It consists of six five-to-eight-minute songs, each of which has two titles, just like the album does, and the lyrics do, frankly, cross into word salad territory pretty often. But Barnes and co. played five of those six songs during their set at the Cedar, and it wasn’t one of those grab-a-drink-while-the-band-plays-their-new-single deals. The new songs are long and rangy, with deep grooves and layers and weird beat switch-ups and room for sick-ass breaks where the guitarist hops on timbales and trades dueling fills with the drummer. The new songs formed the sturdy capable backbone of the show.

2008’s sex-funk mosaic Skeletal Lamping was given just about equal time with the new album in the setlist, which sort of made sense—White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood feels a little like that album’s distant cousin due to its unconventional song structures. A few cuts from the band’s 2007 classic Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? were included too, although the epic “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal” was omitted.

Of Montreal’s live show might make you wonder why certain things aren’t more common—or even just about mandatory—at rock shows, why we don’t expect more. There’s the obvious: You usually don’t make it to your 15th album without at least becoming a competent live act, and Of Montreal is much more than that. Barnes never picked up a guitar on Tuesday night, so his generally overstuffed arrangements were reproduced entirely by his four touring bandmates; those responsible for covering the helium-high, harmonized backing vocals littered throughout his songs probably deserve to paid more.

And then there’s the other stuff: The props, the costumes, the theatrics, the psychedelic projections of skinless musclemen and opossums. In addition to the band itself, Of Montreal tours with a small troupe of dancers who wander on stage during most songs in different strange costumes or with giant puppets. One moment they wore strange pink sloth costumes and dominatrix gear; the next, they opened golden capes to reveal giant light-up skulls, which they waved around while the crowd waved our hands. They shot confetti into the audience; then they carried out what sort of looked like Chinese New Year dragon puppets, with which they pantomimed backing vocals. Before the encore, they conducted the audience in organized cheers. One of the dancers even crowd-surfed while doing splits. Even at their most garish, however, the dancers never fully distracted from Barnes himself—he performed the entirety of the main set in a blonde wig and drag, changing costumes more than Madonna on a Truth or Dare tour stop, making use of the new album’s long instrumental breaks to dash off stage and swap into more and more revealing attire. He ended the encore shirtless.

None of these shenanigans are really new. Of Montreal have been known for their elaborate stage show for over half of their two-decade career at this point. And this band has definitely put on wilder spectacles in the past, if the old photos of Barnes riding a real live white horse on stage are any indication. Anyway, wacky costumes have been part of pop music at least since the Beatles started thrifting for marching band attire, so it’s not like this is innovative.

Still, it’s not that common for a band of this relatively modest stature to put so much work into the visuals of their show, which keeps what Of Montreal does special. When one band offers all this weirdo ear and eye candy together, it almost makes other bands’ shows seem kinda… lazy? Is it so much to ask that our up-and-coming young rock and roll bands, after haggling the price their next wholesale shipment of cassettes, consider making their next phone call to put in an offer on a couple of used school mascot costumes, just to zap up the live show a little? (Yes, given the reality of our “playing shows for gas money” music economy, it probably is too much to ask, which is kind of a bummer.)

So it’s not new, but there is something reassuring about the carefree, permissively absurd world an Of Montreal show invites us into—it’s utopian. At the end of the encore, during 2016’s “Let’s Relate,” on the same behind-the-band projector screen which had, only minutes earlier, shown a surreal landscape of disembodied cat heads, the title slogan flashed triumphantly across a projection of the American flag. Then the show ended, the band left the stage, and the lights came on. I walked outside, onto Cedar, where it was still snowing, but not quite as hard.

Click here to see more photos of Of Montreal's Cedar gig

Gronlandic Edit
Paranoiac Intervals/Body Dysmorphia
Plastis Wafer
Writing the Circles/Orgone Tropics
Sex Karma
Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games)
Sophie Calle Private Game/Every Person is a Pussy, Every Pussy is a Star!
It’s Different for Girls
Plateau Phase/No Careerism No Corruption
Come Wander with Me (Bonnie Beecher cover)
Soft Music/Juno Portraits of the Jovian Sky
For Our Elegant Caste
Touched Something’s Hollow
An Eluardian Instance
A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger

Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider
Gallery Piece
Let’s Relate

Note on the opener: Mega Bog is a good band name, and it gets even better when you learn (as I just did) that the project has its roots in a former one-person band called Little Swamp. They played softly jazzy, softly psychedelic rock, with eccentrically mumbly vocals punctuated by the occasional feral yelp, and they kind of made me want to start playing drums with mallets. The group was reportedly suffering from a merch shortage: frontperson/band mastermind Erin Birgy stated at the end of their set that she only had one copy of one old record and a couple of oddly sized t-shirts to sell. She encouraged folks to say hi after the show, and I hope they did. “I’ll just be sitting there till that one record sells,” she said.