There’s a scene that always sticks my mind from Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ray Bradbury has spent the opening chapters of the book building tension with harbingers of a carnival. Faint notes of a calliope arrive on the wind, and mysterious flyers flutter through the streets of town bearing news of attractions magnificent and crude until a locomotive splits the illuminated moon meadow, arriving in the emerald-tinted night. Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway sneak out to investigate and imagine the fantastic characters and mysteries that might lie behind the painted canvas or beyond the darkness between cage bars.
There’s no moon in the Macon sky tonight, but those are my thoughts as I walked down to the Capitol Theatre for of Montreal. The band is notorious for its characters – both onstage and off, real and imaginary – that might feel comfortable on Bradbury’s mystery train. Early on, there were the scores of twee Penny Lane expats like the Fun Loving Nun, Nickee Coco or the Miniature Philosopher. Later, the characters grew darker: Georgie Fruit, St. Exquisite, Eva the Faggy Girl or Georges Bataille, eggs and eyes in tow. There’s no way of knowing what might show up on the stage tonight.
Adding to the intrigue is the recently-released The Past is a Grotesque Animal, a documentary which explores of Montreal’s history and largely paints frontman Kevin Barnes as a narcissistically driven individual who “value[s] art over human relationships.” Early on in the film, former keyboardist Dottie Alexander remarks that of Montreal is one of those bands that you either love intensely or know nothing about. That’s certainly true in my case. The band completely fell off my radar after excursions into the glam-funk rabbit-holes of Skeletal Lamping and False Priest. I didn’t know about the lineup changes, didn’t know about the solo project belatedly turned into an of Montreal album, didn’t know about this “new sound” supposedly influenced by country-rock titans Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
The band that graced the stage at the Capitol was a straight-up five-piece – two guitars, keyboards, bass and drums. They came out looking like Georgie and His Droogs, Kevin Barnes flamboyant in a smock and tights, the other players clad only in white. Immediately, the Dylan/Parsons/Young references didn’t really stick. Sure, Barnes’ lyrics are cryptic, meandering and literate, and the new second guitarist added some pedal steel-referencing swells, but If anything, the new additions to the band have given the new of Montreal a sound that is closer to the days of Satanic Panic in the Attic or The Sunlandic Twins. The live incarnation is definitely more consistent than the manic capriciousness of the “band” on record. Stripped down and limited to a certain number of sounds, it’s easier to pick out allusions to the Kinks filtered through Low-era David Bowie. The guitars are more present, and the overblown Prince influence of recent years is toned down to a tolerable level. There’s less emphasis on creating onstage characters, more emphasis on cohesive musicianship. It doesn’t sound like a band that’s been presented with songs to learn in a live setting, it sounds like a band that’s allowed to take certain liberties with the creative process. The band skillfully navigated a mix of new and old tunes, presented in a way that tastefully lassoed the colossally diverse range of of Montreal’s recorded output.
But that’s not to say that the theatrics that have come to be associated with an of Montreal show have been dropped. A phallic eye made an appearance alongside androgynous actors in white, expressionless masks; there was a ringleader hype-man that brought to mind the antagonist of Phantom of the Paradise; a psychedelic light show similar to the cover of Hissing Fauna framed the band; the feather cannons were fully loaded, and much of the crowd was dressed like they were part of the act. When asked in interviews recently about of Montreal’s stylistic and lineup changes, Kevin Barnes is quick to point out that the band is “still bringing the circus.” Bring it they did, and the audience was certainly the sideshow.
[For Field Note Stenographers, 2015]