Of Montreal @ Highline Ballroom, 2/26/10

The last time I saw Of Montreal in New York was the now infamous Roseland Ballroom performance in October 2008, just before the release of Skeletal Lamping. That spectacle of a show included, among the multiple large projection screens, tiered platforms and revolving stage sets, singer Kevin Barns emerging from a coffin covered in whipped cream, hanging himself in a gallows, and riding a white horse on stage. You could say the bar had been raised.

Tuesday’s show at the Highline Ballroom – the second of the band’s current tour – saw them in different but no less engaging form, and indeed quite live, playing without the use of pre-programmed beats or backing tracks.

And oh, the virtues of keeping it real. This straightforward approach – essentially the live drumming and what-you-see-is-what-you-get instrumentation – injected the band’s indie-funk-rock with a ton of muscle. I didn’t expect a near mosh pit to break out during “Disconnect the Dots.” In fact, it was a few songs into the set, particularly during “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse,” that the crowd was driven to frenzy and stayed that way the rest of the night. We’re talking crowd surfers. Lots of them.

It was enjoyable to see the band freed from their program – songs were extended, segued and in some cases re-arranged, which made for a welcome fresh take on some of the more well-played numbers.

The set list mixed newer material from the last two albums with a good amount of older material – which in terms of modern Of Montreal means going only as far back as 2004’s Satanic Panic In the Attic and 2005’s Sunlandic Twins. A new song was also thrown in; the curiously titled “Teenage Unicorn Fisting,” which fits nicely into the context of the band’s current stylings.

Now for what really makes an Of Montreal performance: the stage show, which was also on a smaller scale, but regardless, packed plenty of wicked surprises. Two giant screens projected colorful animated sequences, while performers in full-body black spandex suits filmed band members with video cameras, using green screens and lights to apply psychedelic video effects on the big screens.

A shirtless Barnes even stretched himself out on cross beams during the intense set-closing jam out of “She’s A Rejecter.” But the biggest surprises of the night were the special guests, especially the two appearances by Susan Sarandon, who first emerged to spank a pig man over her knee with a ruler, using a crouching Barnes as a seat. She reappeared at the end of the set to assist in throwing streamers into the audience while the spandex-ed performers shot a snowstorm of white feathers overhead.

The final surprise was the encore – a joyous duet of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” between Barnes and new friend/collaborator Solange (yeah, Beyoncé’s sister), who was almost too good at channeling the sweet voice of a young Michael Jackson.

My one (superficial) complaint of the evening was Barnes’ woolly beard, which suited the pirate/gypsy-esque get-up he sported. I just don’t think sparkly blue eye shadow works with beards (I’m looking at you too, Devendra Banhart). Barnes is so good at looking pretty; I’d never have pegged him as the beard type.

Either way, there’s never a bad time to be had at an of Montreal show, but this one certainly ranks among the best I’ve seen them. And this is a band that specializes in bringing it on a regular basis.

John Mordecai

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