There are a lot of acts putting on weird, spectacular (as in spectacle-based) live shows these days. The big thing that separated last night's great double-header by Georgia cohorts Janelle Monae and Of Montreal at First Avenue from, say, Chromeo or Demau5, was the high quality of the music on top of the show. Take away all the dancers and costumes and, um, fornicating pigs, and it still would have been a mind-blowing concert.
Monae's opening set was actually less weird and wild than her performance at the Varsity Theater in March, when she played her new concept album straight through and only drew about 250 people. Prince was in attendance at that one, and he was there again last night, watching from the owner's box/DJ booth with what looked like his entire band (how about next time you show up at First Ave with your players, oh Purple Yoda, you put them to use?!). This time, though, the crowd wasn't just bowled over by Monae's big voice and big-hair, high energy charisma, they also knew her songs, so "Cold War" and the shoulda-been-mass-hit "Tightrope" really lit up the room near the end of the set. Fans also predictably went crazy when Of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes came out and joined Monae's band for her poppy dance track "Make the Bus."
Barnes' large crew once again offered up the kind of grandiose stage show that justified the add-on enlargement of the First Ave stage out into the dancefloor (which cut the club's capacity by about 500 tickets). The carnival of sorts opened with two costumed, caped avengers in giant gas masks pulling out rifles and gunning down pajama-wearing alien children. Oh fun! Barnes came out wearing a turquoise blouse, matching eyeliner, white "Like a Virgin" lace skirt and hose. After a few songs, though, the dancers and all the crazed visual stunts took the backseat to the music (even including the pig-mask orgy) as the eight-piece band worked into an impressively tight, throbbing groove in songs such as "She's a Rejecter" and "For Our Enchanted Castle," part P-Funk, Queen, Abba and Prince & the Revolution.
Many of the tracks from the group's quirky new album, "False Priest," came to life better on stage than they sound on record, including the giddy funked-up gem "Girl Named Hello," the Monae-accompanied "Enemy Gene" and the absolutely demented Prince knock-off "Our Riotous Defect," in which Barnes sang of sleeping with a girlfriend's cousin "just to feel closer to you." The highlight of the set -- and entire show, I'd say -- was the just plain joyful encore. Monae and her bandmates came back out and helped ignite a straight-up, non-gimmicky, all-Michael-Jackson jam featuring "Thriller," "Wanna Be Startin' Something" and my personal MJ fave, "P.Y.T." Too bad Prince had left after Monae's set, because I bet even he couldn't have resisted jumping on stage for that one.