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Arcade Fire

(8 Jun 2011: Charlottesville Pavilion — Charlottesville, VA)

I’d run the temperature up to 100 degrees. After waiting in a line five blocks long, I could already taste the salt running across my lips, and I could feel my age settling on me as I thought about the rigors of attending a show in this heat. Arcade Fire was supposed to keep me young, though. I use their debut for youthful nostalgia, and despite the fact that I wasn’t young when it came out, it helps me drift back, conjuring up the sorts of feelings I had mostly before the band even existed. Before the show, though, I was just hot and bored.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that the group became an indie sensation, with the 2004 debut album Funeral instantly making the band a critical success, even as it felt like a private discovery. It’s been seven years, but it still surprises me that the people that made Funeral can sell out larger venues. For a while, that first EP took some effort to track down; now it takes effort to not know the Grammy-winning band.

The diversity of the audience was testament to that (if pith helmets and Nick Van Exel jerseys measure breadth). There were plenty of kids there, many of whom seemed to be at their first noteworthy concert, but lots of parents and even, I’ll speculate rudely, some grandparents. At one point, I saw a future version of myself watching me. It was unnerving (though I age magnificently), and I hoped he knew that I would like the show.

If the first few seconds were any indication, I was sure I would. The band took the stage with as much energy as all reports suggested they would, and if Win Butler’s clothes suggested a martial order, Richard Reed Perry’s boiler suit signified something more chaotic. The group was as ready to start as I was, and they seemed far less bothered by the heat. A few measures in, being nudged forward by a few thousand people, so was I.

If The Suburbs tempered youthful enthusiasm with adult reflection, that concept was destroyed on the stage. The band played like a bunch of kids (modern or otherwise) set equally towards the goals of blowing up and raising up. The drama from Funeral hasn’t receded; every drum hit comes with a big swing, every dance step with an extra kick, and every big chord with a leap. Where the studio band once needed to stick codas on all their tracks to collect overflowing energy, the live band just needs room to run around. If they’re passing back through time like I might be, it seems as if they’ve receded beyond adolescence.

The group played from the newest album for about half their song selections giving Neon Bible the short straw. This made sense given the increasing capacity for venue to exist as a place for the audience’s bodies to come uncaged. That Funeral got plenty of space suited the energy of the show. Despite focusing on the young, anthemic album and the less young, less anthemic one, the sound of the show was wonderfully cohesive, with tempos and styles mixed just enough to keep us off guard. Songs like “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” drew the crowd into the stage, and by the time the main set closed with “Rebellion (Lies)”, the audience was putting out as much energy as the band. The half-drunk water bottles that Butler kept throwing out to us provided extra hydration and it must have helped.

The band returned with “Wake Up” to start the encore, along with Butler’s encouragement that it would “sound really good if” we would “sing very loud”. The audience responded, and 3,500 hundred people screaming along to a song is as invigorating now as it was when I was a kid. By the time Regine Chassagne (whom I should have mentioned earlier given her energy all night) closed the show with “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, twirling and waving her ribbons out of the darkness, we’d all abandoned any sort of “rigors” of concert-going, sweaty now despite the heat and not because of it.

It made for a remarkable experience and did more than The Suburbs proper to assure me that Arcade Fire can overcome the greatest problem facing it. The band acknowledged in “We Used to Wait” the almost-overdone couplet “Now are lives are changing fast / Hope that something pure can last”. So the question arises: how to translate epic youthful attitude into an maturing music? Staying the same yields redundancy and painful inaccuracy; sacrificing the intensity and yearning means taking away the heart of the band. Performances and audience responses like what I witnessed suggest the path is navigable.

But that’s for a later meditation. I walked out of the concert among hordes of kids, some young enough to need to be met by parents at the gates, and all of them seemed to be talking about how it was the best show they’ve ever seen. Sure, I’m old and jaded, but even I could relate to the excitement. And I should have known. Why else would the future of version of me come back to this show if it wasn’t worth the time travel? Unless, of course, it was just to revisit youth, however he perceives it.


Justin Cober-Lake lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife, kids, and dog. His writing has appeared in a number of places, including Stylus, Paste, Chord, and Trouser Press. His work made its first appearance on CD with the release of Todd Goodman's first symphony, Fields of Crimson. He's recently co-founded the literary fly-fishing journal Rise Forms.

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