Live Review

Of Montreal, Howlin Wolf, New Orleans

It’s not that the show is bad, necessarily…

Full disclosure: I’m not Of Montreal’s biggest fan. It’s not that they’re not good. They are. They’re great, actually. And it’s not that the show is bad, necessarily. It’s not; it’s still an Of Montreal show. I think the word I’m looking for here is overdressed.

Anyone familiar with the band’s live act knows what I’m talking about. They also probably know what front man Kevin Barnes’ looks like in fishnet stockings (pretty good, as it turns out). But think for a moment about all the Of Montreal songs you know and love. They reverberate with this crazy, pubescent energy. They bounce and bleed off the walls and move your feet like lo-fi forgotten block parties. Their songs manage to stir something in us, popping like acid flashbacks behind the eyes, bringing us back to summer.

That is, their studio recordings do all those things.

I can’t speak to Stockholm, or to Tokyo, or Melbourne, or New York or Los Angeles or Vladivostok. But I do know about New Orleans, Louisiana in May, when the heat and the humidity cling as close as Barnes’ stockings, and I know that Of Montreal delivered a wavering, often weak performance chez Howlin’ Wolf.

Their fans came decked out in the feather and vine that has become their hallmark, and expectations were high. It’s unusual here in New Orleans to get a group of such international indie clout. Large cohorts of college kids milled around, singing sporadically to Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In the Aeroplane over the Sea’, an Elephant 6 album that Of Montreal was kind enough to play in full as we waited around for the set to start.

Excuse that bit of peevish narration. But to me Of Montreal always bore this rather dubious crown of distinction. Let’s be honest, they’re a little Beatley. Predating even the vintage Strokes, their sound has gone on to have a rich life of its own, siring probably thousands of bands—of all levels—and they haven’t even broken up yet. As the foppish fashion forebears of indie rock, Of Montreal should have a special place in the heart of anyone who’s been paying attention. So when they look a little hangdog, a little bored, I have a hard time not being disappointed.

It’s nobody’s fault. A career as long and as storied as theirs deserves its off nights. But it’s sort of like sex: if your attention starts to wander, somebody’s doing something wrong. Fans outside agreed. Many concert-goers, dressed in the furry, flora finery that often typifies an Of Montreal show, flapped their hands at me in the universal expression of meh.

The venue, Howlin Wolf might be partly to blame. Located on S. Peters Street in the unlikely business district of New Orleans, the place has the feel of a vast banquet hall, with colored lights flashing noncommittally from the ceilings. The size of the crowd never swelled to the size demanded of the venue, and the result was a diffusion of fan energy, to the point where conversations were more common toward the back than attention. So I’m spoiled. Here’s what I want to see.

I want to see these bands playing smaller shows at smaller venues. I don’t mean I want them to play in something the size of a take away, but let’s be real. There are plenty of more intimate venues in which to enjoy the vulnerability of a skinny rockstar singing about how he might actually be a girl. There were crowd control barriers at this one. The idea, I suppose, is to make as much money as you can, while you can. That’s understandable. This band, after all, was one of the first to pull off that elegant synthesis of pop and experiment that is now so commonly sought. But they are not the Beatles. They should not suck like Paul McCartney playing a stadium.

Let’s all take a breath. Shows are never perfect. But they should be. Why not? That is, after all, why we love music. Is it not? That transcendent feeling, when the audience, the band and the music all participate in something greater. Sure it’s an ideal, but this is art. Let’s have some higher standards here.

So, Of Montreal: next time I see you guys (and there will be a next time), let’s keep it close. Let’s choose a venue with some love in it. Let your fans rub sweaty shoulders and sticky feathers.

And for Chrissakes lose the police barriers.

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