Every year, I, your humble reviewer, do this, and every year I get burned. So, in keeping with time-honored tradition, I’m voluntarily throwing my neck back on the chopping block. On May 9th, I witnessed the best concert of 2007—never mind the fact I have the Police and Genesis reunions on my calendar, as well as Rush, Z.Z. Top/Pretenders, and Mastodon to look forward to. Forget all that riff-raff.
Not to be snarky, but there’s a reason that almost every show on the Arcade Fire’s current tour is sold out… they’re an amazingly live band. The songs take on a livelier, more upbeat dimension, while the band of merry men (and women) themselves work up a collective frenzy. The band only knows one speed on stage: balls-out.
In this show, Arcade Fire hopped across town—they’d played two previous nights in the newest “it” venue in NYC, the United Palace Theater—to kick off David Bowie’s inaugural High Line Festival. Bowie’s goal is to refurbish a stretch of unused elevated rail, creating an raised public space rather than tearing it down. In honor of his cause, he’s mustered up a whole range of musicians—including the Polyphonic Spree, Deerhoof, and Daniel Johnston.
The stage setup was elaborate and eclectic: five vertical poles at the foot turned alternately red and white as the bible logo from the band’s Neon Bible CD glowed as if in full bloom at stage left. Five small, circular screens set up in a semi-circle behind the band flashed mostly black and white images of their performance as the curtain behind the stage came to life. Red was the predominant color in background lighting, despite the fact that most of the band’s members were attired in black or grey.
Though Arcade Fire claims seven members in its core band, the group trotted out a ten-piece traveling show for Bowie: a second female violinist accompanied regular stringer Sarah Neufeld, and a two-piece brass section added punch. When the lights dimmed, the five mini-screens displayed a female preacher in the midst of a rant (topics included the humorous suggestion that some people need an enema to clear out their brains). After that rather odd introduction, the band took the stage, strapped in, and started the 80-minute ride with a rocking, rollicking version of “Keep the Car Running.”
The 15-song set (a two-song encore included) was short on neither effort nor entertainment. Though the band was tighter than an Army plebe’s bed sheets, it managed to be both intense and playful depending on what the songs required. For his part, Win Butler, the group’s de-facto leader, played the serious one (though, off stage, he’s one of the nicest people in the biz). Of course, even he stepped out of his shadow to connect with the Radio City crowd: during “Rebellion (Lies),” the main-set closer, he ventured into the audience and sang the first verse from atop one of the seats.
New material from Neon Bible held up well. “The Well and the Lighthouse” is the polar opposite of Funeral’s “Wake Up.” The former starts off fast and finishes slow, while the latter goes from a crawl to a sprint. “Black Mirror” always had the ghost of Electric Light Orchestra in it; live, the song is a tad heavier. “My Body is a Cage,” “Ocean of Noise,” “Windowsill” and the rollicking “(Antichrist Television Blues)” were given lush, pumped-up renditions.
But it was the classic (two full albums in, and we’re talking “classic”?) songs from Funeral that got the biggest rise out of the packed house. In addition to “Haiti” and “In the Backseat,” the band laid down a heavy “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels).” During “Neighborhood #2 (Laika),” Win’s brother used a motorcycle helmet as a drum, pounding away like nobody’s business until, suddenly, he leapt from the stage, landed in the aisle, and, after a few running steps, took another leap onto the covered orchestra pit at the front of the Music Hall. Brandishing three drumsticks and the helmet, he pounded like mad, and then threw the first drumstick over his head (his band members have learned how to duck). He broke the second one after hitting the helmet too fiercely, and carried the last one back on stage as the song continued. The main-set closing duo of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” and “Rebellion (Lies)” was as powerful and intense a twin killing as I’ve ever seen in my 30 years and 700 concerts. The encore of “Intervention” and “Wake Up” followed—a nice nightcap to the proceedings.
Again, I can’t say enough about how tight the band was on stage. Win Butler’s vocals were a bit lost in the mix at times, but that is a minor quibble. His wife, Régine Chassagne, ran through several instruments—from keys to accordion to a drum kit— and her vocals on “Haiti” and “In the Backseat” were simply transcendent. Richard Reed Parry (aka Napoleon Dynamite’s long-lost twin) shined on everything from guitar to xylophone, and Tim Kingsbury’s bass and Jeremy Gara’s drum work served as a solid anchor.
Even if you don’t get a chance to see them on this tour, make sure you’re armed and loaded the next time Arcade Fire hits the road. Dare I say they’re right up there with current concert legends U2 and Radiohead for the best live show in rock? Even in the face of premature past predictions, I dare. Oh yes, I dare.