By Jon Stone |@jwstone - April 27, 2011
My relationship with Arcade Fire has, for years, been a conflicted one: The hype. The swagger. The spectacle. The brilliance. All of it has fascinated, confused, and at times chaffed at my music sensibilities. Perhaps it is because if Funeral had come out in 1994 instead of 2004, it would have been precisely the kind of record I would have been hopeless for: room plastered with posters, hand-drawn reproductions of the current "Arcade Fire" font on my notebooks, matching Win Butler haircut. In 2004, though, I was reevaluating my obsessions with bands and artists -- like Win, my older heart had grown colder. So, instead of adulation I hung back, like a cynical, aging, hipster-in-denial. "Mtv, what have you done to me?"
Truth be told, Arcade Fire kind of frighten me. Like many, I find their menacing steampunk appearance and the stark cultural critique on all three records eerily prophetic and often bitingly so. But the critic in me is tempted to downplay prescience and focus instead on posturing. Confidence, especially in a large, mulit-membered band, usually plays publicly as hubris. It's been hard not to see Arcade Fire through that lens.
My perspective, though, is shifting. Since The Suburbs was released last year I've been watching and listening more closely to the band. Somewhere between Win and Will's goofy but upbeat interview on NPR last May when "Month of May" and "The Suburbs" were premiered, Richard Reed Perry's smiley appearance on stage with the National at the pre-Lolla show at the House of Blues, and, most of all, the band's devotion to Haiti through organizations like Kanpe and Partners in Health, I've become convinced that they aren't obsessively self-centered. They may even possess humility, which among arena rock stars, is a rare and precious gem. Humble confidence, it turns out, may be the perfect paradox for summing up a band like Arcade Fire.
Last night, Arcade Fire closed out their three-day residency at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago. The National opened the show with a short but intense set (see set list below). And while anyone who is a fan of The National would agree that we'd rather see them with the freedom of the headliner, they were gracious. They kept what could have been a show-stealing performance within respectful bounds. In other words, Matt (sadly) didn't come unglued. Both Richie and Win joined them on stage during their set, the latter for some lovely harmonies on "Start a War."
Without expecting it, Arcade Fire came out and blew me away. It's that simple. Maybe it was the fact that I spent the first three songs of the show in the photo pit two feet away and snapping as many pictures as I could. Those first three songs, "Ready to Start," "Keep the Car Running," and "Haiti" will be seared in my memory. It was one of the most thrilling moments of my concert-going career. Post photo-pit, I had to move out to my more conservative (but still great) seat in the bleachers where I enjoyed the rest of the show. I quite like that perspective. Watching the crowd go all dance-party when "Wake Up" shifts from anthem into "You-can't-hurry-love" sock hop was a priceless thing to witness.
I'm also finding that it's the moments -- the details -- that make a live performance: The white pants and unrelenting energy of Will Butler; the extended phone-off-the-hook piano intro on "We Used to Wait"; the moment when I looked around fruitlessly for the horn section during "No Cars Go" only to realize it was Régine Chassagne's accordion(!). They closed the main set with Funeral's "Rebellion (Lies)" and my favorite moment of the night, perhaps, was when, after the band left the stage, the crowd continued to sing the little violin melody that closes that song. The stage was dark, the band absent, but the audience was unified by a single stirring little melody. Loved it.
The whole show, really, was one of the best in recent memory.
Additional hi-res photos from the show can be found here.
I've been looking at the set lists from all three nights, and while the order shifted around a bit, there were only small deviations. Monday we got "Empty Room" and "Suburban War", Sunday's set included "City With No Children" and "My Body is a Cage" (two of my favorites. darn!), and on Friday they played "Sprawl I (Flatland)", which, I believe, was its live debut.
Arcade Fire's setlist: Ready to Start / Keep the Car Running / Haïti / Rococo / Empty Room / Suburban War / The Suburbs / The Suburbs (Continued) / Month of May / Neighborhood #2 (Laika) / No Cars Go / Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) / We Used to Wait / Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) / Rebellion (Lies) Encore: Intervention / Wake Up / Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
The National's setlist: Anyone's Ghost / Secret Meeting / Bloodbuzz Ohio / Slow Show / Squalor Victoria / Afraid Of Everyone / Conversation 16 / Apartment Story / Driver, Surprise Me / Fake Empire / Start A War / Mr. November/ Terrible Love