The Fiery Furnaces, Fire Zuave
House of Blues, Orlando, Fl • December 9 ,2008
Golden Buddhas, sexy nuns, black clad acrobats with monster masks, and a bearded man in a chopped-up pink leotard: an Of Montreal concert is not what one could call low key. Kevin Barnes and his merry band of pranksters put an unprecedented level of performance art into this tour, marrying low brow art with classical theater in an ambiguous and naughty way.
West Palm Beach’s Fire Zuave adopt Of Montreal’s use of characters and play acting into their opening set, but it comes off as just plain odd when coupled with the trio’s hippie alterna-rock. Random, costumed characters appear onstage around the band, throughout the set with no apparent purpose. Also without any obvious reason, Chuck Andrews, the band’s vocalist/guitarist, wears a feathered boa and blue lipstick while the other two dudes in the band play it straight. It all just feels so forced and awkward. The best thing that I can say about the band’s sound is that the rhythm section holds it all together — particularly the large-armed drummer, Jason Fusco. A cover of “Helter Skelter” is tossed into an otherwise anonymous set. The strange theatrics onstage actual turn out to be a good thing because otherwise most people would have ignored them altogether.
The Fiery Furnaces are difficult to ignore for a couple of reasons. First, vocalist Eleanor Friedberger is a dead ringer for Patti Smith circa 1978 and, as such, always seems to be at the edge of a taut wire about to flail her body onto the stage floor and start spouting poetry. Second, because fans of the New York band never know what sort of band to expect when they show up at one of their concerts. Their music is all over the place, an experimental genre fuck that can be pretty, ugly, and ear piercing all within the same song. I’ve seen them put on a fairly straightforward show that found Ms. Friedberger (whose brother, Matthew, joins her on keyboard and guitar) rockin’ a guitar and channeling her inner Smith, with Sebadoh’s Jason Lowenstein on bass. That was not the band that played the House of Blues this night. This winterly carnation of The Fiery Furnaces colored outside the lines of traditional song structure and only occasionally fell into what could be called a melody. While I spotted a few die hard fans in the crowd attempting to dance to the spastic, synthetic sounds, I was not moved.
Words cannot pin down the strange trip that Of Montreal takes its audiences on. A three tier stage that would fit more comfortably into a basketball arena, rather than the large clubs their latest tour brings them to, houses the band and their various characters while they play nearly two hours worth of ambitious pop music that would have both David Bowie and T. Rex salivating. Rather than the songs themselves playing the central role, compositions like “Id Engager,” “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse,” and “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games” fall in with the bizarre short plays they put on during the songs onstage. Even the titles themselves sound like Greek tragedies!
A revolving platform at center stage spins around to house various scenes: Cowgirls playing cards, animal men whose attacks on others get thwarted by slinky black-clad ninjas, soldiers who pass their guns into the audience as they are seemingly pacified by the music. The narratives don’t always make sense, but instead serve as whipped cream atop the Of Montreal sundae.
As has come to be expected, androgynous front man Kevin Barnes eventually sheds most of his clothes to whittle his way down to a skimpy pair of gold lamé panties. The audience, a lot of whom are dressed rather flamboyantly themselves, reacts with squeals of delight as he struts around the stage interacting with players and the fans down front.
The set is full of surprises, including a guest appearance by Eleanor Friedberger and an unexpected encore — a cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit!” Leave it to Of Montreal to find a way to make Nirvana sound like a foam party!
To see more photos of this show, and others, go to www.jencray.com.
Of Montreal: www.ofmontreal.net