Anti-disco extravaganza: of Montreal at the Orange Peel

Thursday night’s of Montreal show at The Orange Peel felt, from the start, like a party as much as a concert. It was a near-capacity (and all-ages) crowd, many of whom are dressed up in neon tights, tutus (on guys, too), bunny masks, architectural hairdos and buckets of glitter. There was no photography pit, so the fans pressed close to the stage and, even though there were two opening acts, all of the bands were treated to a dose of adoration. (See slideshow, below, for the full effect.)

Kishi Bashi, a solo performer on violin and looped vocals. Bashi is from Norfolk, Va. and is also known as K Ishibashi. He returned to the stage later in the evening as part of the of Montreal band, but his opening set was a lush, orchestra spectacular — Ethereal, haunting, atmospheric, symphonic.

“Now I’m going to play a love song,” he announced at one point. “It’s called ‘I am the Antichrist’.” The frayed bow of his violin — from which he finessed both high notes and the low voice of a cello, seemed an apt metaphor for the mournful but gorgeous sweeping melody. He reminds of Active Child and of Imogen Heap; hopefully he’ll be back in Asheville before long.

Next up was Swedish duo Loney Dear. The band is actually the stage name of singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Emil Svanängen, wither solo of with collaborators. At the Orange Peel he was joined by accordionist Susanna Johansson. Both were seated and the opening songs were mostly slow and quiet. They had a steady build, but no pyrotechnics (think Swell Season). The guy next to me says he’d like to drive through a desert to this kind of music, but not listening to it in a concert, and then he left for a bar.

He missed out. The thing is, Lonely Dear is a slow burn, but well worth the wait. They have an earnestness that lately I find refreshing, and they’re totally about music rather than show. E.g., good to listen to with eyes closed. Vocal loops of sound cycles thrum like biological functions. What felt distant and removed early on becomes insistent and immediate. There’s an outsider quality to the music — it doesn’t belong to anyone. It was cast out into the room by its creators, and everyone seemed caught in the spell.

After a longish wait, of Montreal emerged. First there were just glimpses: a guitar amp covered in pink shag carpet, band members standing behind the opening and closing back stage doors. Hot pink and orange. A ‘70s floral print, a hat with an elaborate veil.

But once they took the stage, the show was off and running. “The Party’s Crashing Us,” an early offering, showcased a kind of overzealous fun. Lead singer Kevin Barnes demanded fist pumping from the crowd. A team of ninjas in black tossed white balloons into the crowd. Psychedelic visuals (far better, graphically, than the typical lava lamp effect) ran across half a dozen screens. 

Barnes, dressed in a skinny grey suit, red ruffled shirt, metallic blue eyeshadow, his hair cut short on one side, held court center stage. During the Bowie-esque “Godly Intersex,” the ninjas held up a sheet on which a black and white movie played oblivious to Barnes’ powerful falsetto. 

Of Montreal played a number of songs from their latest release, Paralytic Stalks. “Dour Percentage,” probably the best known track from that album, is all BeeGees swagger and boogie nights — enough so that a guy nearby shouted, “Disco sucks!” But what the band was playing was really anti disco, using the vacuous, polyester club beats of the ‘70s as a jumbling off point to talk about everything that disco would never touch. Lonliness, alienation, disillusionment. All wrapped up in a party-ready confection of lights, layered instrumentation, theatrics, costumes, performance art, crowd-surfing ninjas and a crazy, spooky flute melody.

Visuals — nearly as much a part of the show as the songs — ranged from paper cut art that recalled Where the Wild Things Are to a black, white and red TV-with-no-reception series of jabs and slashes set to a heavy, blood-pounding number that took the mood from ‘70s groove to ‘80s stadium rock.

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