Cheese castles, dragons and hanging with Prince — Kevin Barnes’ crew and Janelle Monaé get their freak on in the US
PABST THEATER, MILWAUKEE
FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 24
If Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is known for anything – apart from the Violent Femmes – it’s beer, and there’s plenty to be had backstage before Of Montreal’s show tonight at the Pabst Theater. As NME happily works its way through the output of several local breweries, various Of Montrealites begin to arrive and help themselves to dinner – “I wish every venue was like this,” sighs amiable bassist/keyboardist Nicholas Dobbratz as he digs into the impressive spread.
The Pabst Theater is certainly an unexpected gem, all gold leaf livery and old world charm. It’s also full of secret tunnels and staircases – later in the evening, NME’s intrepid photographer will venture right up to the top of the catwalk that spans the venue’s fly-reel apparatus, in the company of Kevin Barnes and a gentleman from Janelle Monáe’s entourage who goes by the name of “2.0”.
Janelle Monáe? Oh, we didn’t mention she’s here too? Indeed she is – in fact, this is billed as a double headline tour. As the two acts retire to their respective dressing rooms to prepare, Monáe’s genial tour manager regales NME with tales of last night’s show in Minneapolis: “Yeah, Prince was there,” he says matter-of-factly. “When you get to know him, he’s a real gentleman.” It’ll surprise no-one to learn that The Purple One is a huge fan of Monáe; he entertained her entourage, along with a very, very excited Kevin Barnes, at Paisley Park yesterday. “Prince gave me a hug,” Barnes will beam to NME later. “It was a beautiful experience.”
Monáe is on stage first, and she and her immaculately-suited band of outrageously talented musicians absolutely tear shit up. Their set is clearly planned down to the second, with several theatrical set-pieces (like bringing out an easel and canvas during ‘Mushrooms and Roses’), but that doesn’t in any way compromise its energy or impact. And boy, can Janelle sing.
Of Montreal up the theatrical ante even further, with Barnes a picture of flamboyance in wrap-around miniskirt, blue eyeliner, orange tights and amazing turquoise boots. He’s joined on stage by seven faux kabuki made-up bandmates and an assortment of characters who’d have The Flaming Lips scratching their heads: gun-toting goldfish, sinister pyjama-clad skeleton children, a huge Michelin man with a lightglobe for a head. “My brother [artist David Barnes] designed them all,” Barnes explains to NME afterwards. “He has an incredible imagination. His sketch books are outrageous.
“This is the first tour where we’ve created and engineered everything on our own,” he continues. “We’ve discovered that a lot of the ideas we had originally didn’t work the way we envisaged, so we’ve had to modify them. We were trying to make something more abstract … because everything we’ve done [before] has been comical and fun and playful. But,” he chuckles ruefully, “we discovered it just didn’t work. So we’ve gone back to being playful and crazy again.”
It seems to work out just fine tonight. “Grandmothers and aunts sewed this stuff,” confides the band’s publicist during ‘Hydra Fancies’, as we watch Barnes ride around on a giant pantomime dragon that requires four people to operate. The general effect is playful and crazy, alright; frankly, if you haven’t seen an androgynous boy/girl dry-humping a roadie in a gold bodysuit and a pig mask, you haven’t really lived.
After ‘A Sentence Of Sorts In Kongsvinger’ closes the main set, Monáe and band re-appear to join Of Montreal on stage (along with tour manager, sound guy and pretty much everyone else) for an exuberant Michael Jackson medley encore of ‘Thriller,’ ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,’ and ‘Pretty Young Thing’. The crowd, rightly, goes batshit.
Backstage after the show, Monáe’s crew unleash some of the most jaw-dropping freestyling you’ll ever see, further reinforcing that they are Way Cooler Than Us. In a good way. As 2am rolls round, everyone starts peeling off toward the buses, and NME soon follows suit. Tomorrow: Chicago.
RIVIERA THEATER, CHICAGO
SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 25
The outskirts of Chicago are grim – cracked pavements, foreclosed businesses and a general air of down-at-heelness. The only places open on a Saturday morning are churches and pawn shops. It’s a two-hour drive here from Milwaukee, a journey that takes you straight through the heart of Middle America via fun-sounding places like the “Bong Recreation Reserve” and the “Mars Cheese Castle”.
In contrast to its surrounds, Chicago itself is a gleaming portrait of space-age futurism on the idyllic shores of Lake Michigan. We rendezvous with the band after soundcheck at The Riviera Theater, an ornate old jazz-era former cinema. There’s an evil lurgy going around the bus – poor keyboardist Thayer Serrano looks particularly forlorn, while Barnes is sipping herbal tea and sniffing a lot. Monáe and co, however, seem to be in rude health and tear out another ripsnorter of a set. As with last night, Barnes joins her on stage for ‘Make The Bus’, much to the crowd’s delight.
The Barnes/Monáe axis is a fascinating one. They’re clearly firm friends: “We’re super-close. I feel like I’ve known her for about 100 years,” Barnes tells us. “Meeting Janelle and the rest of the Wondaland Arts Society was extremely inspirational and really helped steer the ship for the creation of False Priest.” For her part, Monáe says simply, “They are my favourites. Absolutely. 100%.”
Out on stage, it’s plain to see what they share: a penchant for theatrics and an idiosyncratic, restless creative vision that has little regard for genre boundaries. “We’re all very free,” suggests Barnes of the two camps’ similarities. “We don’t want to do anything boring or clichéd – we just want to do something exceptional. Maybe we come from different places, but that’s the great thing about art: it can break down barriers. That’s what’s so beautiful about it.”
Of Montreal also shake off their illnesses to absolutely nail it tonight: “That was definitely the best show we’ve played so far,” enthuses bassist Davey Pierce as the band in the wings before the encore. The MJ medley gets another work-out, and again the crowd go bananas for it, especially when Monáe breaks out a flawless moonwalk.
After the show, we follow guitarist/violinist K Ishibashi back to one of Of Montreal’s two decked-out buses (“There’s the party bus and the quiet bus,” he explains), where he and Dobbratz proudly show off the really quite awesome recording studio they’ve set up in the back. Equally impressive is the bong that someone has constructed from an apple.
Eventually, the band go their separate ways – some to bed, the rest for a few drinks before the 2am bus call. NME is delighted to tag along with the latter; Barnes, perhaps more sensibly, retires early. He’s trying to avoid the lurgy, and since this is the second-last show of the tour’s first leg, he wants to finish on a high. “So far, I can’t think of any tour that’s been more fun and fulfilling,” he tells us before he crashes. “Artistically and emotionally… It’s been amazing.” Tom Hawking