If Kevin Barnes were to ever give up making music, he would have ample experience being the ring master for a big time circus. For proof of this statement, look no further than Barnes’ of Montreal and their performance Monday evening at Union Transfer. Even his outfit, a light grey suit covering a frilly red shirt, gave the idea that he might have lions jumping through flaming hoops at some point in the evening.
Even before doors open, there were hints at the impending conviviality - brightly dressed kids, some with faces painted, hinting at the circus-like atmosphere forthcoming. The first of two openers was of Montreal band member Kishi Bashi, who held the near capacity crowd in near silence as he performed a handful of songs off his forthcoming LP, 151a, due out next week. It was quiet to the point he had to ask if the audience was really polite or if he was playing to an empty room. As for Bashi, he was anything but quiet, mixing violin, his own beat boxing, guitar and throughout looping samples of himself on the stage to produce some powerful sounds on such songs as “It All Began with a Burst”. After that “burst” of energy, things turned more low key, as Sweden’s Loney, Dear (Emil Svanängen), the second opener of the evening, took the stage for a more relaxed set. Accompanied by an accordionist, Emil removed his shoes before starting into a set “he had reversed the order of from last night.” Occasionally playing on a drum set that might have been sized more for an eight year old in his bedroom than a sold out show at Union Transfer, he played his downtempo set as anticipation built for the headliner’s appearance.
Shortly thereafter, as ‘90s radio R&B started to waft out of the sound system, the crowd began to gather steam. They’d given their attention to the other two rings under the big top that night, and now they were ready to give their full attention to the ring master in the center ring. Starting out with songs from their most recent effort, Paralytic Stalks, the crowd’s energy rose. During the second song in the set, characters dressed head to toe in black came out and threw bundles of balloons into the crowd. The packages burst into individual balloons, as if mimicking the crowd’s excitement. During the performance, various characters appeared on the stage, acting out scenes as the band played on. By the time Barnes and Co. got to “Suffer for Fashion”, off of 2007’s classic Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, the crowd was in full tilt, dancing around the stage and on the balcony above the general crowd. As if they knew what the crowd was anticipating, there was no banter from the band as they flowed from song to song in their nearly hour and a half set, save for Barnes saying a gentle “goodbye” to the audience at the conclusion, and “Did you have a good time tonight Philadelphia? I know I did. I know I did.” at the end of the encore, which was preceded by two men dressed in pig masks leading the crowd in cries for the band to return to the stage.
The Ringling Brothers might have a run for their money.
Update 04/9/2012: corrected to "of Montreal"