Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Review: Arcade Fire-Spoon Concert (8.2.10)

Even though I have been to many concerts over the years, I haven’t written any concert reviews in large part because it is so difficult to capture the experience in a few words. I will fare no better in this effort, but I will try to put something down in writing anyway. (Thanks to the magic of YouTube, I also have links to videos of most of the songs.)

Tuesday night was my third Arcade Fire concert. I first saw them in Portland in 2004 during their very first tour in support of Funeral. They were the third of four bands. I bought my ticket at the door for $10. The relatively small room was only sparsely filled. I could easily walk up to the front of the stage, which is exactly what I did. That show still sticks with me as my most transformative concert experience. Thinking back on it now, almost six years later, I still well up with emotion. (I have bootleg recordings from that first tour, and they instantly thrust me back into that moment.) Sadly for me, I will likely never hear the Arcade Fire in such an intimate setting again. The second time I saw them was at Tower Theater in Philadelphia for the Neon Bible tour, a 3000-seat indoor theater. Today they are stadium rockers capable of filling Madison Square Garden—which they will do tonight and tomorrow night (and tomorrow you can see them live online). The fact that Spoon opens for them is remarkable.

The show last night was held at the Mann Center, which is an outdoor covered pavilion with an uncovered lawn in the back. It is located in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park and hosts a variety of cultural art events, including many orchestral performances. The Mann Center holds roughly 14,000 people, and from the looks of it, it was filled to capacity. Thanks to a presale ticket, I was in the four row on the left side.

Spoon’s opening set was very good, as expected, though not overwhelming. As with all such outdoor shows, the opening band has to play while it’s still light out and with half the seats empty. The effect of the music is considerably diminished. While it’s understandable, Spoon also chose to play almost exclusively from their last two albums, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and Transference (six and five songs, respectively, out of a total sixteen songs). “Written in Reverse” and “Got Nuffin” were both solid performances. I happen to think their latest release, while still quite good, is one of their lesser albums. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is a superb album, no question, and since it launched their current popularity, it is understandable that they would emphasize it so much. But my personal favorites are Kill the Moonlight and Gimme Fiction. They played three from the former (“Small Stakes,” “Stay Don’t Go,” “Jonathon Fisk”), and only one from the latter (“I Summon You”—sadly, not “I Turn My Camera On”). In any case, the real standouts from their set were all from Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Specifically, “Rhythm and Soul,” “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb,” and near the end of the set, “Don’t Make Me a Target.” The last of these got the crowd on to its feet, which is significant considering the countervailing factors noted above. All in all, they put on a good show, with a good use of the stage and limited lighting.

The Arcade Fire put on a trademark Arcade Fire performance. By that I mean they were as energetic, athletic, and carefree as they always have been. Where Spoon portrays themselves as professional rockers—with the skinny jeans, untucked button-up shirts, low-hanging guitars, and expressionless faces on everyone except the lead singer—Arcade Fire is intentionally un-professional. As Will Butler said in a recent NY Times article, the band seeks to maintain “that amateur sheen, that nonprofessional sheen that I treasure.” Early on, Win Butler began a song, but then had to start it over again. Some of the other musicians weren’t quite ready yet. As anyone who has seen them live knows, they like to switch instruments frequently, often between every song (and during the first tour, they switched within songs as well!). As a result, they can sometimes take awhile to get settled. It’s all part of that “nonprofessional sheen.” Their usual on-stage antics were also on full display here, and considerably more so than during their Neon Bible tour. Win came out into the crowd several times, taking the mic with him. There was a wall enclosing the pit, and he walked along that a few times. At one point, he threw the mic back to the stage and ventured beyond the wall, climbing over the chairs. And near the end of the set, Will Butler (Win’s brother) ran all the way through the crowd to the very back of the pavilion pounding on a drum.

As far as the music itself, the concert fulfilled every expectation. I mean this not only in the sense that they performed another incredible show, but also that they performed it in a way that I had been expecting based on prior reports and reviews. For instance, back in June they played a private show at the Notman House in Montreal. A person privileged enough to be there wrote a review mentioning the fact that they now use two drum kits again. He also said that the new material “didn’t bother with instrumental novelties: no hurdy-gurdy, melodica or accordion. Instead, there were often just four electric guitars, heavy as hell, and charging.” This proved to be quite accurate. While some may want them to return to the instrumental form of Funeral, this concert solidified these songs as a new stage in their progression as a band. The kids have grown up and now have their own kids. Now they live in suburbs, where “dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains,” as Régine Chassagne sings on “Sprawl II” (more on that song later). Suburban angst runs through the entire album.

If Funeral is the youthful response to memory and regret, and if Neon Bible is the translation of this response into an ambitious world-changing idealism, then The Suburbs is the abandonment of global slogans and the return to a kind of existential locality (or maybe local existentialism)—smaller, more concrete, images of sorrow, joy, nostalgia, anxiety, and rage. The problems that need to be addressed are work routines, the businessmen who “drink my blood,” “living in the sprawl” of endless shopping malls, the rise of technology, and the loss of small pleasures like writing a letter. And, of course, “the kids,” or now, “the modern kids,” as Win sings in the new song, “Rococo.” While kids have always been a motif for the Arcade Fire—all the way back to “No Cars Go” from their original EP—the new album makes this the dominant theme from beginning to end. Almost every song references “the kids” in some way or another, but now with a sense of distance and reserve that wasn’t there before. One of the reports I read noted that the band was playing very little from Neon Bible on their tour, and that proved to be the case on Tuesday night. After listening to the new album, this makes sense. Funeral and Suburbs are almost of a pair: they have musical similarities, for sure, but thematically there is a close connection between them.

The set opened with “Ready to Start,” one of the new “heavy as hell” songs that is sure to be an instant hit from the new album. From there they turned to more familiar territory: “Neighborhood #2 (Laika),” which they performed with their usual crowd-involving dynamism and forcefulness; “No Cars Go,” which seemed even more intense and rousing than the Neon Bible tour (preceded by Win giving the crowd permission to do “whatever the fuck you want,” to the consternation of the Mann Center staff!); and then, perhaps most powerfully, “Haïti,” which was a true highlight of the night. The original song is an acoustic showcase for Régine’s beautiful vocals, and while she stole the show again with her charming trademark dancing, the song was transformed into a heavy, electric-guitar rocker. By the end of the song, it bore little resemblance to the original version on Funeral. It could have held its place alongside “Neighborhood #3” or “Intervention” in terms of sheer force. Interestingly, when they played “Intervention” several songs later, it was quite a bit more subdued than the version they played on the Neon Bible tour—further evidence of their de-emphasizing of that album.

After “Haïti,” they played four new songs. The first was “Rococo,” which is a great song on the album, but even greater live. Win sung it with much greater intensity and bite than on the album, the repetitive chorus becoming a raging cry juxtaposed with the melodic background vocals of Régine and others. In the middle he added, “I’ve gotta feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good night.” Then, in one of the surprising moments of the night, they played a cover of Jay Reatard’s punk classic, “Oh It’s Such A Shame.” Arcade Fire is known for great covers, and this one has to be among their very best. Reatard, if you don’t know, died in January at the age of 29 due to drugs and alcohol. I can’t describe how moving it was to be there for that performance. I think everyone had chills from it. They then played two more songs from the new album, “Deep Blue” and “The Suburbs.” Both captured the album perfectly.

The band then played “Intervention” (this is a high-quality video), which I have already mentioned. Next was “We Used to Wait,” about the loss of letter-writing and today’s culture of instant gratification. The video behind them showed pictures of old QSL postcards (the kind used by ham-radio operators) from the collection of the Butlers’ grandfather, at least according to the NY Times article cited above. Then came the moment everyone knows from their live show, when play “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” and “Rebellion (Lies)” together. This goes back to their very first tour. It was, without question, the climactic point of the entire show—as it should be. (This video captures the transition from the one song into the other, as well as the thrill of being there; click here for a high-quality video just of “Rebellion,” which, when it zooms in, also roughly shows you how close I was, though I was even closer than that.) The performance of these two songs eclipsed almost everything from the previous Arcade Fire shows I have seen. It was a transcendent moment.

I was afraid, for a second, that they would end the main set here. But they continued, to my delight, with “Month of May”—the heavy punk rock song from the new release—and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” (The video of the latter is very poor, but it’s the only one I could find.) Though the “Neighborhood-Rebellion” performance is still the climax of the show, “Sprawl II” was a close second. Régine is my favorite member of the band, and she dominated the show with this song. It’s clear that this song will be featured in every future show for a long time. It is a highlight of the album, and it was a highlight of the concert. The main set concluded with “Keep the Car Running” from Neon Bible. In many ways, the most fitting transition to the encore: “keep the show running!”

The three-song encore was as remarkable as always. They started with fan-favorite “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” again more guitar-driven and charging than the album version. They transitioned into the new hit “Modern Man,” which has already established itself as one of the standout tracks from The Suburbs. Finally, as usual, they closed with an epic performance of “Wake Up” (see also here, here, and here), in my opinion the greatest song of the 21st century. Even though everyone knows this song is coming, it never gets old and never ceases to amaze. It is truly one of the great live songs of all time, and it brought to a close one of the best concerts I have ever seen.

What was missing? Most noticeably, “Empty Room” from the new album. This really surprised me. It is one of the strongest, loudest, and most concert-ready tracks on the entire album. I wish they had performed it, especially since it features Régine’s voice and Sarah Neufeld’s violin. They also didn’t play my personal favorite song from The Suburbs, “Half Light I,” but this didn’t surprise me considering it is one of the softer and more subdued tracks. As expected, they also skipped many of the hits from Neon Bible, including “Black Mirror,” “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations,” “Ocean of Noise,” and “Windowstill.” All in all, they played six songs from Funeral, three from Neon Bible, and eight from The Suburbs. I really could not have asked for much more. It was a stunning concert. They infused each song with an intensity and urgency—one might say, an apocalyptic exigence—that transfigured this one night among other nights into a singularly unanticipatable event, a sonic encounter with something beyond. Truly, an epic concert.

Update: Video links added for “We Used to Wait” (partial), “Keep the Car Running,” and “Neighborhood #1.” At around 0:20 on the “We Used to Wait” clip, Win is standing about 10 feet from where I am.