The Daily Californian Online

Playing at the Warfield, Of Montreal and Janelle Monae Provide Richly Contrasting Showmanship

By Liz Mak
Contributing Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010
Category: Arts & Entertainment > Music > Concerts

Theatricality was the watchword this past Friday night at the Warfield. Focusing equally on performance and music, indie pop band of Montreal and opening act Janelle Monae forced the near sold-out crowd to choose: dance, or leave.

"Our time is now," said a projection of Monae's persona Cindi Mayweather, at the beginning of her set. There's a conspiracy against droid freedom, she said, and only one commandment to follow: "You will dance or die." An unorthodox way to start a performance, maybe, but emblematic of Monae's style, both unconventional and unrepentant.

Monae's appeal is rooted in her mash-up sound, incorporating funk, soul, hip-hop and pop, which provides a sample platter of old sounds, revitalized. The vocal flexibility that Monae exercises lends itself to different styles: There's the pre-pubescent MJ throatiness, the lounge singer's croon and a mature clarity expressed in her awesome cover of Charlie Chaplin's "Smile." But while her vocal technique and range are impressive to the point of inciting abundant shouts ("I love you!"), it's clear that the audience wasn't just cheering for the singing - Monae is so much more.

As an instinctual performer, her command of the stage provides the drama that audiences clamor for and musicians so rarely provide. The video, the clothing (Monae's trademark modern-female tuxedo), the spastic dancing, the affectation of sophistication - all are representative of an intuitive showmanship channeling tongue-in-cheek class into a performance of intriguing proportions.

But while Monae's presentation served to immerse and engage, of Montreal's self-indulgent set was mere spectacle - providing all of the pop without any of the sizzle. Of Montreal's performance was characterized by a severe lack: Lack of understanding how far the (sober) members of the audience were willing to go, a set list lacking the hits you wanted to hear, and a performance lacking the band's trademark sound, its layered intricacy covered by grungy noise and overly abundant distortion. Of Montreal on stage sounded nothing like of Montreal on record.

The lack was at odds with the supreme over-indulgence of the show: While of Montreal's lyrics have sometimes relished the hedonistic, the show - mirroring an avant-garde theater production - of back-up dancers dressed as children with large skulls and inmates with straitjackets showed little substance beyond the aesthetic. That lead singer Kevin Barnes took liberty with half of the stage crew didn't lend itself to added depth, either. The main act? Kevin Barnes feigning copulation with a dancer dressed as a pig. Then with his microphone; some other back up dancers; the floor; himself. He simulated sex with some caged girls, too, and also with a 10-foot centipede.

What was outlandish eccentricity in Monae's show became potentially alienating spectacle in of Montreal's. The distinction between the two was a loose interpretation of the one and only commandment of stage performance: You play for those who pay. Of Montreal, however, placed its show on the shoulders of the semi-present Barnes, who slurred through 10-minute intermissions between songs, paving the way for a more than 90-minute set: "We're very free people, fairly open-minded," he said. "We want everybody to feel like there's a reason they exist. Like, this morning, I was looking in the mirror and it was terrifying ... But I had to accept myself." Pause. "I hope you accept yourself," he said.

But whatever alternate realm he was occupying, it seems the dance choreographers might have been there, too. In one interlude, a dancer dressed as a pig wobbled on a table, affecting an orgasm as Barnes provided commentary: "You just made my mouth pregnant. What's my dentist gonna say?" he asked. As another mimicked cutting the pig open with a knife, Barnes told him to take a big slice. "What's it taste like?" he asked. "Democracy?"

To take a look at the faces of the crowd during this dramatization would be to understand of Montreal's hit-or-miss appeal. There were looks of amazed disbelief and emissions of non-committal laughter; others fought faces that revealed "just-get-through-it" desperation. There was boredom; discomfort; anger. Someone shouted out: "Janelle!"

And then there were some freshly empty spots, where people used to be - before they chose to leave, rather than dance.

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