Last Saturday, January 31, I took the TGV up to Paris for a weekend visit, with the main goal to see Of Montreal play a concert. Of Montreal, along with the Mountain Goats and The Flaming Lips, are a band for which I will travel long distances. You will see why later in this post. I arrived in Paris a little before noon and decided that instead of taking the metro I would use the Vélib bicycles for my entire trip. This actually went pretty well and I didn’t step foot into a subway car until the third day when I woke up to snow which turned into freezing rain. While I really enjoyed cruising through Paris on a bicycle and pretending I lived there, I should warn any prospective Vélib users that they can be frustrating. Don’t expect to just bike up to your destination. More than once I had to circle around several Vélib stands before I found a parking spot. Or there was the time when the bike I picked had loose handlebars and I had to change it out, but then I had to wait five minutes before getting a new bike. Or when I couldn’t get the bike in at just the right angle and spent several minutes of frustration banging it against its metal stand. And there are a surprising amount of one way streets in Paris. France is teaching me to be patient.
I’d picked a hostel near Place de la République and despite the fact that my roommates spoke neither French nor English and seemed to have problems keeping the water in the shower, it worked out well. I could walk to the concert venue, was right next to a Vélib stand, and was a block from a metro station. Plus, there was a bakery across the street that was awesome. I would go there everyday if I could. The woman who worked there gave me free pastries while I waited for my sandwich and seemed overly concerned about the heating time of the mozzarella.
I ended up having lunch in front of Notre Dame because I got lost looking for the Jardin des Plantes. After eating part of the giant sandwich I’d made in Valence, I finally made it over to the right place and went to Les Galeries de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie Comparée (the Galleries of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy). The Galeries are part of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (National Museum of Natural History) complex in the Jardin des Plantes. You might remember my visit to the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution which is also part of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. Like that museum, les Galeries de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie Comparée was a spectacle of species. This time with skeletons and wet specimens, which is when organs and body parts are preserved in jars usually filled with formaldehyde. As this is a comparative anatomy museum, everything is arranged according to function. For example, there is a case of stomachs from animals that have similar digestive functions and a case full of brains (sometimes connected to spines) for animals with similar cognitive functions. One of the more interesting cabinets had a succession of human, ape, and gorilla skulls from child to adult that showed the similar ways our skulls develop. I’m going to bet that couldn’t be shown in some parts of the United States.
At first when I entered the museum and saw the herds of children, I thought I was going to be annoyed. But they were so involved in the exhibits and their parents never pulled them away from the more disturbing cabinets, like the jars of fetuses or the “monsters” with two heads. My tour through the three floors was accompanied with a constant soundtrack of “C’est quoi ça???” (“What’s this?”). I kind of felt the same way. At every cabinet or every skeleton I was instantly thinking “What in the world is going on?” and would read the tiny cursive writing and find out it was a bird skeleton from an Egyptian mummy, a dissected camel, or a human ear. In addition to the curiosity aspect, the museum is beautiful. As you can see from these pictures there is a herd of animals skeletons in the middle with the wet specimens and smaller skeletons in cases on the sides. On the walls above there are collections of skulls and horns. Plus, it was almost completely lit by the sunlight coming through the giant windows.
The paleontology floor was similarly arranged (no wet specimens, alas). I especially enjoyed the woolly mammoths and the balcony from which you could see all the fossils. I ended my tour by looking at one of Georges Cuvier’s original comparative anatomy boxes that shows his attempts to classify species through their functions. His system may be a little out-of-date now, but a walk through the museum definitely made me think about the similarities between my hands and the bones in a whale’s flipper or the similar structure my skull shares with a chimpanzee.
I Vélibed back to the hostel and took a walk through Oberkampf before getting in line for the Of Montreal concert. I was there pretty early so there were only about 10 people in front of me. I figured if I came all the way to Paris I had better be in front. And when the doors opened I was right against the stage. The show was in Le Bataclan, a little concert hall built in the mid-1800s that often hosts indie concerts.
Casiokids, a Norwegian electropop group, played first. I’ll start by saying that their bass player and drummer were pretty good and we’re churning out some awesome dance beats. However, the band seems to have some sort of rule that all five people cannot play at once and at least one person must be awkwardly dancing or playing the woodblock. However, I was charmed by their awkwardness and most of their songs were danceable, so I enjoyed their set.
Soon after the Casiokids ended, a tiger wearing a white suit came on stage to rev up the crowd for Of Montreal. And once the band took the stage it only got more fantastically bizarre from there. The lead singer Kevin Barnes had several costume changes, which towards the end of the show became more and more revealing. First no shirt, then just silk beige underwear, then covered in shaving cream (over a bodysuit). I was right in front of Bryan Poole the guitar player who had his usual battered angel wings. I have to say that I probably missed some stage theatrics because I was so enthralled with his guitar skills. That man can play and has some great stage presence. And yes, I’m using stage presence as code for attractiveness. Although I just gave away my code.
The last time I’d seen Of Montreal was at a free concert they played at the University of Oklahoma. At that show, the power blew about halfway through their second song and they ended up playing an acoustic set. So I was excited to see their fully electrified stage performance. They mostly played songs from their new album, Skeletal Lamping, although there were selections from Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? and some of their older popular songs like “Requiem For O.M.M.2″ and “Wraith Pinned to the Mist (and Other Games).” I came to the show expecting it to be overrun with Americans since Of Montreal is from Georgia, but I was surprised to be one of the few there. This of course made me the annoying person who knew all the words to all the songs.
Every song was accompanied by a video projection and some sort of costumed theatrics. I’m sure there was a plot or meaning that brought the birds wearing red suits or a hoofed Satan to the stage, but it was lost on me. And I didn’t care. I love absurdity and spectacle for its own sake. Although I’m sure if it was all coordinated by Kevin Barnes it must have a connection with the Georgie Fruit story. They even threw feathers into the crowd like the Flaming Lips does with confetti.
But despite the fact they might be influenced by the Lips carnavelesque stage show, it isn’t the same level of positive exuberance. It’s much more cathartic and darker. There was a point where there was a funeral procession with Barnes in the casket and there was another where a guy continued to reveal more hideous masks under masks to a terrified skeleton. Or where, as in this photo, the tiger in the white suit attacked a pig.
If you want to see some videos from the concert, people have posted a few on YouTube. You can Of Montreal’s performance of “Id Engager,” “Cato as a Pun,” and their finale where they covered Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out.” The last one is especially worth watching is you want to see how many people in costumes were involved in the set. At the angle of the last two I’m sure I could find my head if I really looked. I’ll leave that to you if you so desire.
I think I’m still feeling happy from that concert, so it was well worth the trip. I love bands that put extra effort into making their live shows engaging. It’s nice if you can get up there and play your music just like it is on the CD, but then there’s really no point in going. I will definitely go out of my way to see Of Montreal again.
Two more Paris posts are coming. Hopefully I’ll get them done before I leave for Berlin.