The Arcade Fire
It’s a cold winter night and I’m driving towards Detroit in a beat up truck, fast under miles and miles of gray Michigan sky. This is not how I normally spend a Thursday evening—I’m more the social, talkative type—but I’ve left my nine-to-five’er, lame-o friends to their dull routines and worthless excuses (“but we have work in the morning”). The promise of a historically fab evening pushes me forward.
18 Nov 2004: The Magic Stick Detroit
For once, I figure, the hype machine has gotten it right. Canada’s latest export, the Arcade Fire, is a perfect gathering of Montreal scene-vets. Their debut, Funeral, contains some of the loveliest interpretations of modern pop to grace my ears in quite a long time. So I’m more than happy to make the drive for this one, even if it means braving the path alone. The Arcade Fire, who heretofore has earned its reputation by way of fantastic live shows, is certainly worth a couple hours of alone time.
I arrive at the venue with time to spare, enough time in fact to share a couple quick games of stick with some real Motown locals. Unfamiliar with this evening’s entertainment they, like many others, heard by word-of-mouth that this band is not to be missed. I applaud their instincts, knowing full well that were it not for a cheap ticket price (eight bucks) most of these kids would be somewhere else tonight.
After properly embarrassing myself at the billiard tables I grab a beer and settle in for the opening act, Gold Chains, of whom I am vaguely familiar through the rapper’s association with Kid 606. Yes, Gold Chains is a rapper, but he’s also a lunatic guitarist. His rhymes and beats recall West Coast old school, though he dirties ‘em up with shrunk-y leads and monster riff age.
Gold Chains’ best moments on this night occur when he sheds his axe. He joins the audience on the floor, mic in hand, imploring us to get as funky, and as ghetto, as possible. It nearly works—hipster kids are reluctant to dance, but even we have our moments.
After an engagingly sweaty, fun-filled, 45-minute set, Gold Chains turns the evening over to the Arcade Fire. The Fire may be the “it” band of the moment, but they still set up their own gear, an indication that the world hasn’t quite caught on yet.
For my money, the best time to catch a band is right before they go massive; everything’s there—the sound, the show, the message. Everything but the hordes of people. It’s wonderful.
I have to paint this picture for you: imagine Napoleon Dynamite. Now picture him in a startlingly bright, red necktie, one that matches his hair. Add black, horn-rimmed glasses and a half-shell motorcycle helmet and you’ve got multi-instrumentalist Richard Parry, the Arcade Fire’s secret weapon. He’s not the front man or the guitarist (Win Butler assumes both of those roles) but he’s the one you watch.
As the band begins their 14-song set with “Neighborhood #2 (laika)”, Parry bangs out the percussive intro with drumsticks against the venue’s metal support beams. He hammers them savagely, sending shards of the sticks flying into the crowd. The crowd, of course, loves every second of it. He is truly mad, going ballistic with a pair of tambourines one second and then pounding relentlessly on a piano the next—a sight to behold.
The aforementioned Butler, however, is the heart and soul of the band. He and wife Regine Chassagne are clearly the ones in charge of this extravagant production. They usher the band into their second song, “Wake Up”. Arguably the band’s best tune, it epitomizes what the group is all about: from its six-part, choral shout-along opening to its single note, chunky, guitar riff, and on to its Supremes-ish piano and drum finish.
As the song came to a close, you could truly sense that the crowd was enjoying a state of pure, atomic joy—the energy that radiates from this band is remarkable. Each song sees the band rotate instruments, shifting from accordion to drums to stand-up bass to violin and so on. As a result, each song has a distinct sound. This said, it’s all tied together by the voice of Win Butler. Butler is blessed with a truly unique voice; it has a natural break that, while seemingly effortless, lends it an otherworldly sound. He’s not singing per se, not quite talking or shouting either, but rather a little of each. “How does he do that?” I’ve often wondered, “It must be a trick.” It is no trick, at least not one that I can spot. “Crown of Love”, the band’s unofficial ode to Roxy Music, is a perfect example—Butler’s interrupted-hiccup croon provides the perfect foil to the band’s lovely piano melody. Mesmerizing.
Funeral contains only 10 songs but, not content to deliver a short set, the band finds room for a couple choice covers. Their fellow countryman Neil Young is well represented with a subdued, acoustic rendering of “One of These Days.” The tune features Butler as he explores the lyrics, while singing an octave lower than Young.
The band’s version of the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place” has inspired discussion of late. It has been trashed by other folks for its audacity; in it the band dares to transpose the song’s stellar melody into a steel drum pattern. The nerve!
Actually, the homage comes off splendidly—the Heads are obviously a major influence on the band’s own material. Butler shares a CMJ story before playing the song: An inebriated fan approached David Byrne during the Fire’s set to repeatedly and drunkenly inform him that “dude, they’re playing your song!” Butler e-mailed Byrne to apologize for any unpleasantness they may have caused him and was surprised when Byrne returned his e-mail—especially surprised since Byrne’s reply consisted only of a picture of a blimp crashing into a rodeo.
The band closes with “In the Backseat”, a song that features the very cute Chassagne on lead vocal and the equally lovely Sarah Newfield on violin. Chassagne’s vocals are frequently compared to Björk’s and, on this track, the similarities are apparent. The song comes to crashing life during the second verse, guitars bursting in, drums awakening—it’s one of the brilliant moments on the record, yet something different altogether when performed live.
The song concludes after a few false endings with the maniacal Parry, somewhat restrained, bowing the song’s gentle bassline on his stand-up and with Newfield stretching out the melodic lead on her violin. The band looks exhausted; the crowd certainly is. But the mood is one of unmistakable happiness and satisfaction.
I listen to nothing for the first 45 minutes of my trip home, preferring the echoes of the evening to whatever I have in my CD case. I’m still not entirely sure how Butler does that thing with his voice—I’m incapable of reproducing the sound myself no matter how awkwardly I try. What I can do is bask. This band is scary good. It remains to be seen how far they’ll take it (bands of their ilk tend to burn out) but, if you can, get some for yourself while the getting is still so grand.