Friday, April 25, 2003
Sparkling vocal harmonies, swinging melodies and whimsical plays of verse were alive and well at the Bottleneck last night when Athens, GA rock and roll vaudevillians Of Montreal headlined for London-based singer/songwriter James William Hindle and local acts Ghosty and The Hardaways.
The Hardaways kicked off the evening with their custom blend of rock tunes and inspired pop, throwing in some instrument-switching acrobatics to keep things lively. The highlight of the evening was clearly the finale, "Love Song," for which singer Jeff Ferrell sat down at the grand piano. The song, one of several numbers by The Hardaways played in 3/4 time, proved the group could swing as well as flat-out rock.
Local comrades-in-arms Ghosty built on The Hardaways sound with their opener, "Jacqueline," a recent composition from Andrew Connor that featured experimental keyboard touches from David Wetzel. Throughout the set, Connor put feeling into his vocals, occasionally letting guitar feedback fill up the space between lyrics. With a solid performance from new bassist Mike Nolte, Ghosty once again proved to be one of the most exciting bands to see in town, and the closing number left the audience's ears ringing with the playful guitarwork and ominous keyboard blasts.
(author's note: I live upstairs from every member of Ghosty except for David, who is my brother. I am admittedly biased. However, let me repeat. I live with this band. They practice during the two hours of the day I might otherwise be sleeping. And I still like them. Perhaps the bias works both ways)
The momentum let up a bit during London singer/songwriter James William Hindle's solo acoustic set. Hindle played folk tunes that sounded similar to James Taylor or George Harrison. While Hindle will not likely be taking out a patent on chord progressions, his guitar playing was understated but pretty and his songs remained just upbeat enough to avoid sounding melancholy.
Shortly thereafter, Of Montreal (who are actually from Athens, GA) took the stage dressed in a colorful variety of striped pants, vests and oversized ties. After lead singer Kevin Barnes made a few mime gestures, the band launched into a performance that sounded much more powerful than the sum of its parts.
With lead guitarist Andy Gonzales taking a hiatus from touring, Of Montreal's repertoire was somewhat limited, and signature songs such as "Doing Nothing" were conspicuously absent from the setlist. Keyboardist Dottie Alexander provided a powerful sweeping backdrop to the rest of the music, and Barnes's solos were pleasantly erratic, but the band could only do so much without all five members.
However, the band sailed through the first half of the set, keeping the crowd interested by going from one song to the next without letting up the pace. "The Peacock Parasols," on which singer Barnes all but barks "uh-oh" after every line, was an early standout, especially when he sang "Plumy plum drops of pear-shaped rain and tear drops dripping pastly from peacock parasols" over the somewhat jerky rhythm. Fascinating.
Only fifteen minutes into the set and I couldn't help but ask, who is Of Montreal? Are they eccentric theater students who resorted to rock and roll to spread their bizarre gospel? Gifted pop musicians who just happened to infuse their melodies with whimsical character sketches and off-beat poetry? I didn't know, and I didn't care. Watching them play, I just wanted to dance.
Barnes apparently read my mind. After playing the opening chords of The Shins "Know Your Onion," the band instead went into a medley that ended with a scorching rendition of "Rapper's Delight." Barnes proved he was as vocally adept as any member of the Sugar Hill Gang and as skilled as Beck at cutting a rug onstage. The moment, which drew the most cheers and hand-claps from the crowd, was the most fun of the show.
The remarkable thing about Of Montreal is the way they are able to balance such humorous antics and lyrics with catchy melodies and excellent musicianship. Unlike Ween or They Might Be Giants, Of Montreal successfully take both the low road and the high road, putting forth so much sincerity towards their music and humor that the listner doesn't know exactly what road they're on.
On record, especially 2001's "Coquelicot Asleep In The Poppies," Of Montreal's music and lyrical content are all over the place. Their albums are almost like full-length medleys of pop music, verse and short stories. In addition to the colorful music and lyrics, all albums feature artwork from Singer Barnes' brother David, whose colorful portraits are a cross between Travis Mallard and Where's Waldo. Though first-time listeners may be confused, they will likely feel lucky to have come across such wonderfully strange compositions.
Unfortunately, many of these elements did not translate into Thursday's performance. On record the band often changes tempo, moving from upbeat numbers to psychedelic ballads to outright comical tracks splashed with dialogue and honky-tonk piano. Thursday's set, however, was loud and fast-paced all the way through, barely giving the crowd the chance to bask in the dreamy instrumentation the band captures so well on their recordings.
In addition, the spectacular concepts of the albums were somehow absent. A globe light sat on a table, but there was no one to swing it around in circles. If you didn't listen closely to the lyrics or pay too much attention to the colorful dress, you might even mistake them for just another rock band (albeit an immensely talented one).
To keep this from happening, Of Montreal should indulge in their tendencies towards over-the-top theater, storytelling and made-up characters on stage as well as on record. With almost 10 albums in just over five years, the group has already amassed an impressive collection of such imaginative works and should continue to have faith in their unique and eccentric vision.
My plea to Of Montreal: Bring back the theatrical readings, the audience participation, the on-stage wedding of "Cassandra Buglehorn Flugelhorn." Fill your leaf blowers with feathers and blast them all across America. We The People have seen one too many sentimentalized images of war and spent one too many sleepless nights worrying about S.A.R.S. to feel anything but numb. We are in more dire need of humor in our music than ever before, and you are poised to bring it to us. Oh, and while you're at it, try and convince Andy to come back on tour.
The monsters of rock will always win more affection and record sales from the preteen demographic, but by daring to be the Muppets of rock, Of Montreal can provide infinitely more originality for the genre. The beauty of it is, they can kick ass at the same time. And that, my friends, is a wonderful thing.