It only took three songs for Kevin Barnes to take off his pants, and another handful to unbutton the large pink shirt that he walked out on stage in. Barnes was wearing another layer of clothing under both.
The of Montreal frontman’s immersive, fantastical performance returned to the Georgia Theatre on Feb. 27. The Georgia Theatre was the first stop on Barnes’ spring-long tour in support of his latest (and 16th) studio album “UR FUN,” released on Polyvinyl in mid-January.
The album feels the most grounded in Athens out of Barnes’ entire discography — Barnes recorded the album in a home studio in the city, sure, but also wrote the album about his relationship with local pop act Christina Schnieder of Locate S,1. It was only fitting that the first night of the tour began in Athens.
The first local act to open was the wiry experimental-pop-rock outfit Swowce, who performed in the Athens Area High School Battle of the Bands in January, released its first studio EP “Do Not Shed on the Swowch” in early February and, unrelatedly, maintains a strange social media presence.
“Greentop Naptime” was a highlight — its chorus leading with a shrill “Get off my lawn!” before vocalist and bassist Kaija Gilbertson Hall (who sings with the same tepid drawl as ‘90s alt vocalists — think Helium) descends into a measured, screeching madness. “MMM Swowce,” which lies somewhere in the universe of comedy hip-hop and includes half-guttural, half-squelchy noises of eating salads and Subway sandwiches, was also great.
The newly-minted pop band Lily’s Band — who, unlike Swowce, does not maintain any online presence — took the stage afterward, and will continue touring with of Montreal during the first leg of their tour. Fronted by prolific experimental songwriter Lily Konigsberg, Lily’s Band is a supergroup of other musicians, including Konigsberg’s Palberta bandmatde Nina Ryser and Charlie Dore-Young. The band played through abruptly short, melodic pop songs that really didn’t move the crowd.
As with every of Montreal performance, Barnes’ set was several layers of weird, sticky fun — explorations of Dissociative Identity Disorder splashing over hurried guitars, clashes of complementary colors filling the venue and glitter-covered deer costumes dancing to dreamlike loops of synth.
Every of Montreal set includes some aspect of performance art, which usually entails two or three people running out on stage intermittently in garish costumes. For his “UR FUN” tour, Barnes exchanged the paper-mâché baby heads and dragons from his last tour for large sugar skulls, fursuits, moth-like men and dancers holding up flat canvases to display projected images of screaming wolves — among other dream-like things.
Barnes began the set with two recognizable songs — “Peace To All Freaks,” the lead single off of the new album, and his cynical 2016 track “it’s different for girls.” The setlist was comprised of mostly newer works, including songs pulled from his 2018 release "White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood,” but Barnes also played through longtime setlist mainstays, like 2007’s “Gronlandic Edit.” Barnes saved grittier guitar-driven songs for his three-song encore, ending with “20th Century Schizofriendic Revengoid-man.”
It’s funny to see that the same four bands are usually regurgitated when referring to Athens’ past and present music scene — The B-52’s, R.E.M., Widespread Panic and even Pylon — but of Montreal is not as often looped into the conversation. Barnes is not an unkept secret, unnecessarily, but he’s a central part of the town’s bleeding music scene. Isn’t Barnes just a one-man-show of every wonderful, unvarnished part of Athens? — from the grime inside of Normal Bar’s bathrooms and blinking neons of chain restaurants to the Mandy Moore CDs at Wuxtry Records.
of Montreal’s set was the same it could ever be — pure, fantastical pleasure, an obnoxious trip down an experimental pop lane that you can find in other pockets of the city: the Kourtesans at the 40 Watt, the 20-minute Ad•verse Fest sets at the Athens Institute for Contemporary Art. There’s still something magical and distinctive about Barnes’ energy that can’t be explained — but perhaps it’s just fun.