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At Day for Night, don’t expect anything that courts the middle

December 17, 2017 GMT

On a gray day with rain in the forecast, the third annual Day for Night festival opened with defiant flamboyance.

The event’s aptly tagged Red Stage boasted Of Montreal early Saturday afternoon for a set that made no concessions to the weather. Ringleader Kevin Barnes showed up in a high piled blond wig and a floor-length red gown. And befitting a festival that proudly programs in a politically provocative way he strummed his guitar while some extras ran around the stage in police uniforms chasing a few guys wearing jumpsuits that represented human musculature minus the skin.

This is not an event that aims for the middle.

Mike Hadreas’ Perfume Genius followed. He showed up in pleather pants and a silver shirt with flowing sleeves: part sprightly Peter Pan and part sneering Captain Hook. Hadreas’ songs are raw and unnerving and he built a slowly swelling set that moved from quiet contemplative pop to darker electronic fare.

“We’re going to do one more nice song,” he said after “Wreath.” “Then we’re going to get to the nastier half.”

Through it all Hadreas was impossible to ignore, writhing twisting and cavorting like Freddie Mercury only clad in a unitard of anxiety and insecurity.

Russia’s provocative Pussy Riot was tailor made for such an event with an electro-splashy pop/hip-hop set that made use of barbed lyrics, sampled recordings of a prominent American elected official and feigned fellatio, as well as what was surely the cosmos’ most frequent use of the first name of the group in a 40-minute concert.

Their set was joyous if a little sloppy.

The infamous Russian political collective breached international news in 2012 when its members were imprisoned for religious hatred. They stormed the stage late afternoon with a set that made you wonder if something was lost in translation.

Led by Nadya Tolokonnikova, who spent two years in prison, the group’s performance was a refrain for base feminism under the notion that all life comes from the female genitalia.

Did I mention this is not an event that courts the middle?

Cardi B, the hottest pop star on the festival lineup with her song of the year candidate “Bodak Yellow,” showed up on stage 45 minutes late and with a friendly smile before she said to the crowd, “I’m not going to front, we’re going to do this quick ’cause I’m cold.” And it was, with a set that under 20 minutes played more like a medley of her songs before performing her hit, which featured her on backing track that sometimes took the lead.

Day for Night positions itself as much a visual event as an aural one. The inside of the old Barbara Jordan Post Office proved an eerie and cavernous counterpart to the outside flair. Dimly lit almost to the point of unease the lower level was both beautifully spare and darkly upsetting. Though Light Leaks - artist Kyle McDonald’s collection of disco balls hung by nets from the ceiling - projected beams like the most star lit of nights or the first moment a Star Wars vessel jumps to light speed.

Another giant display - called Liminal Scope - looked like some sort of widget out of Stargate, with three giant metal portals projecting light. A display with enormous laser spouting robotic arm type structures (Telestron VT Pro) was sufficiently compelling as to create a line for viewing.

Back outside, the sets were nudged up a few minutes in anticipation of rain. And temperatures went down with the sun, which fit James Blakes’ icy electronic soul perfectly. He opened with Bill Withers’ “Hope She’ll Be Happier” before slipping into “Life Around Here.” His guitarist struggled to keep warm, blowing into his hands between songs.

Nine Inch Nails took the stage minutes after the rain began to fall, turning out its own storm of turgid industrial rock starting with “Branches/Bones.” A huge crowd had started forming hours earlier. Nobody seemed to mind the wind or the rain.