An inspired meeting of the (twisted) minds
From her striking appearance (that Afro-pompadour looms high) to her surrealistic approach to the history of pop, Janelle Monáe is a tough act to follow.
Then again, you could say the same about Kevin Barnes, the ringleader of the circus-cum-band he calls Of Montreal. That the two are friends, collaborators, and now tour mates is a no-brainer, making Monáe and Of Montreal this year’s most inspired meeting of warped minds.
Monáe’s performance on Thursday night at the House of Blues suggested she’s grooming herself for success beyond the underground. She’s thinking bigger, in tandem with her swelling fan base. Dancers materialized during her set, elaborate visuals projected aerial views of the performance, and her band sounded more emboldened to rock out louder and faster.
Monáe steamrolled through the first three songs of her debut “The ArchAndroid’’ (“Dance or Die,’’ “Faster,’’ “Locked Inside’’) with nary a pause between them. “Tightrope,’’ the year’s best Top 40 hit that never happened, pumped up the crowd, before the closing “Come Alive (War of the Roses)’’ mutated into the most ferocious musical freakout the House of Blues has likely ever hosted.
Monáe toned it down for “Smile,’’ playing the shopworn standard with just her guitarist and needling the notes with the mercurial phrasing of a jazz singer. Its placement early on was intentional: It was the one moment she could burrow into the music and steady her voice, as if to prove she’s also a competent singer and not just a bundle of live wires.
Barnes, too, has mastered the art of music as theater, emerging in a half-skirt, a frilly blouse, and matching cut-off boots. He led Of Montreal on a funhouse tour of songs (“Coquet Coquette,’’ “Enemy Gene’’) from the band’s new album, “False Priest.’’ Coming down from the fevered heights of older material (“Gronlandic,’’ “The Party’s Crashing Us’’), Barnes played, alone on piano, a haunting cover of “Tonight,’’ a ballad by long-lost folk singer Sibylle Baier.
“You know we’re not messing around anymore,’’ Barnes said at the start of a Michael Jackson medley that included “Thriller,’’ “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,’’ and “P.Y.T.’’ As Barnes caromed off his bandmates, Monáe and her entourage suddenly appeared, momentarily igniting a dance-off. The show had reached its inevitable apex: Barnes and Monáe were together and the life of their own twisted party.
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.