of Montreal, Janelle Monae
November 2, 2010
Better than: Glee on acid!
Last night, the ascending funky soul diva Janelle Monae served as the opener for seasoned psych funk ravers of Montreal in one of the more compelling pairings in recent touring memory.
And, while both acts are serving up high musical concepts with lots of theater at this performance, Kevin Barnes and his band of glam rockers that truly ruled the night.
Monáe is touring to perform her recent ArchAndroid release, a continuation of a musical suite showcasing her creativity and her serious pipes. But on this night, the crowd got to see something else, too--some great dance moves.
And they wanted to see them.
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With an emcee dressed in funk formal wear and priming the crowd, Monae's part of the evening started with a video of Monáe in full Queen of the Androids regalia, explaining what has gone down in Metropolis, with its citizenship of androids, and intoning us to "Dance or Die." Her small band filled with Andre 3000-styled sidemen took to the stage with three robed figures that launched into the song suite with the song "Dance or Die" and--surprise!--one of those robed figures turned out to be Monae. What followed was kind of a muddy mess where band and singer were accompanied by a script and soundtrack that robbed the night of spontaneity, and with a dance troupe that added sometimes awkward drama on a too small stage. A break in the Metropolis story had Monáe accompanied by her guitarist for a display of her vocal capabilities with a cover of "Smile" for the appreciative crowd. More theatrics followed, as Janelle sang and painted (there was also an easel filling an already too-crowded stage), shot characters with her finger, etc. Finally, she broke into "Tighrope," the song most of the crowd was obviously primed for and genuinely responded to.
For much of Monáe's hour-long set the crowd was interested, but really not swept up.
When the curtain finally came up on Kevin Barnes and company, the stage was actually cleared of clutter, despite the eight-member troupe of of Montreal. And Barnes was quite the sight center-stage, starting the night dressed in flesh colored tights with leg warmers and boots, an apron, a blouse and a jacket, kicking the night off with a blistering "Coquet Coquette."
For the next 90 minutes, Barnes and his glam band played as tight and sexed-up as Prince and the Revolution ever dreamed of, but with no adult supervision and no restraint.
The stagecraft throughout the night was impressive and sometimes mind-boggling. As with Monáe, dancers came on and off the stage throughout the set in costumes ranging from jammy-wearing skull people to performers in pig outfits (Kevin rode his piggy gal, but I'll say no more about that) to a feather cannon-headed android. At one point, Barnes appeared on stage singing while riding a funky dragon.
Eventually, it was all just a bit overwhelming. Maybe a bit of editing of the theatrics is in order to let the music more speak for itself?
Still, the video accompaniment throughout the of Montreal set was dazzling, including live camera feeds of the performers emerging as psychedelic line abstractions on the Granada's video screens. At one point, a huge, vintage television prop was brought to the front of the stage (watched by three little pigs) and a backstage Barnes was "broadcast" in black and white, singing along with the band.
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By the end of the performance, Barnes had stripped down to little more than a little tight skirt and body of pure muscle and sinew as the band cranked things up to 11 and built the music to a stunning (and I mean that literally) sonic climax, nearly approaching My Bloody Valentine in shear decibel level.
Now that's entertainment!
Personal Bias: I've said it before and I'll say it again. I have huge respect for bands that recreate their complex studio work live, and of Montreal did it all. Janelle did not.
Random Note: There was one oversight Barnes and company should take care of. On a highly theatrical stage, there was a roadie shuffling guitars and fixing pedals dressed in a crappy tee shirt and jeans. His too frequent appearance in street clothes was a distraction. Take a note from the White Stripes playbook and have everyone that is around the stage in some form of character.