Kevin Barnes’s brainchild of Montreal is no stranger to reinvention. Over the course of thirteen albums, the Athens, Georgia, collective has experimented — rather successfully — with everything from twee pop to r&b funk to its latest rock-punk hybrid (Aureate Gloom, released earlier this month). The main consistency from release to release is Barnes’s tendency toward the TMI: He digs deep, and weirdly, into the darkest corners of his psyche, to profound effect.
Also consistent has been of Montreal’s penchant for the theatrical. Years and years of touring has yielded such sights as Barnes, mostly naked, riding a horse onstage at Roseland Ballroom; dancers being crucified; and too many wedding-dress costumes to count. Over-the-top has been the name of the game, which has produced some of the strangest — and most fun — show-going experiences of the past decade.
But as the band matures musically, its live presence does, too, and of Montreal’s set last night at Webster Hall was among its tamest in recent memory. Don’t worry — there were still half-naked women in flag costumes shaking enlarged fake breasts, a sexy Abraham Lincoln in a spiderweb outfit, Barnes’s signature glittery eyeshadow, and, of course, a wedding dress or two, but the overall production bordered on the safe.
Part of that is likely due to the new material. “Bassem Sabry,” named after an Egyptian journalist who died, for one, is the most politically charged song on the record. And more straightforward rockers (and a little moshing!) were heard in “Chthonian Dirge for Uruk the Other” and “Like Ashoka’s Inferno of Memory,” the latter pummeling in a soft-loud dynamic that transferred excellently to the stage.
Audience favorites were the usual suspects: the balloon-dropping party fun of “Suffer for Fashion”; Barnes’s Georgie Fruit alter ego coming out in “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider”; the added punk flair to “Rapture Rapes the Muses”; the pure pop bliss of “Gronlandic Epic” and “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse.” A Kitty Wells impersonator even joined for a “feminist anthem,” Wells’s “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk.”
Ultimately, the show was one big buildup for the emotional outpouring of the grand finale of “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal.” The nearly twelve-minute epic often strikes as too indulgent in a live setting, but Barnes and Co. pulled out all the stops. Barnes was at his most intense, raw and emotional, so much so that he literally stripped the shirt off his back. For any detractors who think of Montreal have lost their edge, the power and soul behind this one performance might mean they’re just getting started.
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