Last Night: Of Montreal And Janelle Monae At Numbers

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Photos by Marco Torres
Of Montreal, Janelle Monae
November 4, 2010

At ACL we lamented that The Flaming Lips performances have evolved to be less about the music and more about the floor show. You know what you're getting when you pay for a Lips concert ticket - Wayne Coyne will get in the hamster ball and bounce around the crowd, just like you know the Rolling Stones are always going to play "Satisfaction". It's part of the performer/audience contract.

But why does it have to be? Last night at Numbers, as we were watching Janelle Monae and of Montreal writhe around on stage with a band of full-body-condomed dancers behind them, we felt the annoyance creeping in. It's goes hand-in-hand with something else that's been bothering us lately, the ubiquity of the encore. Not every two-bit band who comes through town deserves an encore.

Encores used to be a treat, an exercise in spontaneity and critical mass brought on by the applause of the mob. Now they're not just expected, they're practically required. Just once Aftermath would like to see a band walk off stage at the end of their show and be done with it.

Sigh. What exactly is our point here?

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Janelle Monae can sing. And girl can dance. And anyone who has heard and fell in love with her hit "Tightrope" still has no idea of the breadth of her talent and the genres she glides smoothly between. Her opening number sounded like a techno dance party, and at first Aftermath thought she might be lip-syncing, her delivery was so quick and en pointe.

She rolled through her first three offerings without stopping while her band of dancers took to the crowd with white-gloved hands holding tambourines. Later, they returned to the stage wearing nun habits. The crowd went crazy.

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If you were paying attention to the music, though, you would have heard the familiar notes of Chic, '60s French pop, James Brown (duh) and '80s techno. That's the thing. There is too much else going on on stage, and with Monae's personal mythology, it's difficult to let the music stand on it's own. Her complicated concept of an android alter-ego who comes to Earth to save the human race, the way she dances/acts out the lyrics to each song, the James Brown cape schtick -- it's really all too much.

Because when she performed "Smile" halfway through her set, just her and her guitarist, the audience was perfectly content with only the sound of her voice. Amazingly, no one even talked through the song.

Just to hear her was all we needed. And when she did "Cold War," the second to the last song, with images of Cassius Clay behind her as she extolled "You better know what you're fighting for," it became clear that the message she wants to get across rings true with or without that plot-heavy backstory and obvious onstage imagery.

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