Two critics, two musical acts, one insane show—Monday night's Janelle Monae/Of Montreal concert at In The Venue was unlike anything Salt Lake City has seen in a while.
It's not every day that you go to a show and discover an utterly transcendent artist, especially when said artist is the opening act. But that's what happened Monday at In The Venue, thanks to the appearance of Janelle Monae.
The 24-year-old Monae is most easily labeled as an R&B and soul singer, but she proved to be so much more Monday via her multi-media show that featured ornate videos, highly choreographed dance portions and a loose storyline extracted from her latest album, The ArchAndroid, which is a continuation of her concept album from 2007, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). The Kansas City native is like the love child of David Bowie and Outkast's Andre 3000, and that proved to be a very good thing.
Monae's set began with her appearing on two massive screens backing the In The Venue stage, in her character of "Cindi Mayweather," a Monae alter-ego who, on The ArchAndroid, becomes a messiah-type character to a legion of androids in the fictional city of Metropolis.
Leveling a command to the audience—playing the role of those androids—Monae intoned, "Dance or Die!" and kicked into the song of the same name. It was a command easy to follow as Monae and her tight backing band skittered through funk, soul, R&B and rock throughout an hour-long set that included songs like "Tightrope," "Come Alive (The War of the Roses)," "Wondaland" and her latest single, "Cold War." A cover of "Smile" showcased a vocal dexterity that was awe-inspiring.
Beyond the music, though, Monae displayed a showmanship all too rare in modern music. She had a dance troupe that easily outnumbered the musicians in her band, and they smoothly shifted in and out of performance-art pieces during her set. During one song, Monae painted on a blank canvas while she sang; during another she dropped balloons from the ceiling. On yet another, she had to "shoot" her finger-pistols at encroaching enemies before they reached her microphone. Each song was accompanied by a vivid video presentation, whether skewed live feeds of the activity on stage or pre-filmed images that lent her set a psychedelic vibe.
All told, Monae's set was one of the best shows I've seen in a long time, and I immediately felt like it would be hard for Of Montreal to follow such a stunning set. And I was right; Kevin Barnes and Co. had their own monster-sized set full of videos and performance art, but it didn't stand up to Monae's set in my book.
My cohort Austen Diamond, also on hand, didn't necessarily agree. Here's his take on Of Montreal's set.
Janelle Monae would be a hard act to follow for anyone other than Of Montreal.
Like indulging in chocolate mousse before a filet mignon, this review should start at the end, and best part, of the show. How does the nine-piece traveling musical circus top a set-closer that includes a feather-cannon mask? Encoring with Michael Jackson's classic "Thriller," that's how. Plus, there's no need to write a linear review of something so surreal and abstract as a costumed, veritable art freak show that is an Of Montreal concert. Frontman, band leader and at times isolationist Kevin Barnes—think Perry Farrell-meets-Prince—along with an ever-changing ensemble, has made indie pop for 15 years. But only with his last two albums—2010's False Priest and 2008's Skeletal Lamping—has his mini-skirt of over-sexed glam/prog rock fit so perfectly.
The new sound complements the "anything goes" approach to theatrical malarkey of their concerts, which left a young, energetic (yet under-sexed by comparison) SLC crowd at-times bewildered, to say the least. This was especially true mid-set when, during "Godly Intersex," Barnes acted out a scene of making love to a costumed female pig, only for her boyfriend, another costumed pig, to bear witness and become upset.
Barnes—as he probably would do in real life—cooled the situation down, which re-escalated into a pig-dominated ménage a trois. As Barnes bleated sex sounds and moaned "Fuck me with your little pig cock," jaws hit the floor. Two songs later, with the audience still bewildered, Barnes said that they were going to play their sex song (I thought just about every song from the past couple of years was their "sex song"). Evening opener and kindred freaky spirit Janelle Monae joined the stage for "Sex Karma."
While it might be easy to think that Of Montreal is strictly about sex, there were some more tame moments during the evening. By tame, imagine costumed dragons wearing gas masks parading around stage for the set-opener "Coquet Coquette," classics like "Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games" and "The Party's Crashing Us" made all the more avant garde with two projectors displaying images ranging from psychedelic dancing silhouettes to dancing larger-than-life skulls, or Barnes' eye-lined pretty-boy face projected on a temporary TV screen while he sings from backstage.
In concert, Of Montreal truly goes anywhere your imagination could take you, where your imagination has never thought to go ... and then some.