...where, ah, “the abyss” is the possibly-biggest-selling, certainly-biggest-sounding band in indie rock. Specifically, Arcade Fire. More specifically, Régine Chassagne, singer and co-songwriter and spouse of frontman Win Butler, who, late in Arcade Fire’s ecstatic 95-minute concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion last night, briefly abandoned her post behind the piano to toss that ladies' garmet (which might actually have been a halter top; it was hard to see) back to its owner. This isn’t 1987 and we’re not Poison, her revolted glare seemed to scold.
Of course, it could very well have been circa-1987 U2, what with the urgent vastness of the music; the related sense of a big, important band grown huge and courting self-importance; and also the lack of any detectable awareness of sex-- which is kind of weird, given how driving and propulsive Arcade Fire's most arresting music is. On a tune like “Rebellion (Lies)”, the dizzying set-closer that invited the bra-throw, all eight musicians on stage were basically playing percussion, and almost all of them were shouting the lyrics whether they had microphones or not.
All hands on deck! was the vibe. The players frequently swapped instruments, and every one of them got to stand at the lip of the stage and feel loved. The effect was to upend the typical rock band hierarchy, replacing it with what seemed like an egalitarian, ramshackle ensemble. Would anyone recognize these people walking down the street? Well, Butler does have an unusual haircut, but if not for that? In the concert's most transcendent moments, like when “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” spiraled into something brutal and oppressive before morphing into the rumble of “Rebellion (Lies)", Butler seemed to cede his bandleader role entirely.
Opening the show, Arcade Fire's Merge Records labelmates Spoon were all icy precision, in contrast to Arcade Fire’s ragged emotion. But the headliner's set had the feel of a great band’s arrival at an uncompromised maturity, an association solidified by the chorus of Tweets about how the gig couldn't possibly compare to their 9:30 Club / Black Cat / wherever set back in 2005 / 2004 / 1963. Nostalgia only thickens from here: The Merriweather show directly followed two nights at Madison Square Garden, the latter webcast live under the direction of Terry Gilliam, the unreliable genius who made Brazil, 12 Monkeys, and lots of movies as ambitious as those but not as good. Arcade Fire have graduated to big rooms and auteur filmmakers at the same moment The Suburbs, their just-released third album, has dialed back the openness and urgency of their first two in favor of something more interior and anxious.
They played about half the new record last night, and not just the loud half, despite the insistent opening one-two of new tunes “Ready to Start” and “Month of May.” Performed mid-show, title track “The Suburbs” was accompanied by a chilling film of high schoolers biking and skateboarding through wide planned-community streets like the ones in Texas where Butler grew up, then casually taking aim with air (?) rifles at streetlamps and birds atop powerlines and eventually, unsuspecting people.
“Now our lives our changing fast / Hope that something pure can last” sang Butler on another new song, “We Used to Wait,” wrapping his microphone cord around his neck noose-style while nervous venue staffers looked on.
The new songs blended perfectly with a half-dozen revived from Funeral, Arcade Fire still-stunning 2004 debut full-length. Even more than on their none-too-shy albums, the group’s live sound is a puffy-chested, irony-dissolving swell that makes everything they sing feel desperately important. This combined with the whole sexlessness thing has gotten them pegged in some quarters as the poster children for the Unbearable Whiteness of Indie Rock. But if you saw them last night, you’d know: They’re not the new U2.
They’re the white Parliament-Funkadelic, to the extent that such a thing can be imagined to exist.
By which I mean, they’re a big, amorphous group, and every one of them is doing something, often hitting something, on every song. There are more tambourines and maracas on stage at an Arcade Fire concert than in a second-grade music class, and as in that music class, who exactly is in charge is sometimes unclear. Those tambourines and maracas have streamers tied to them to make them more visually alluring, and of course it’s all theater. On “Neighborhood #2 (Laika),” Richard Reed Parry held a drum over his head while a bandmate lept up and down to wail on it, splinters flying off his drumsticks until only matchsticks remained. You couldn’t hear it, but it looked amazing. The rational part of your brain understands that striking a tambourine with a mallet probably doesn’t make any more noise than using it according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. But Dude! This one guy was totally hitting his tambourine with a mallet!
Moments earlier, a newer song,“Half Light II (No Celebration)” -- parenthetically, you’ve never met a band more in love with parentheses than this one -- ran aground after a single verse. A frustrated Butler blamed a faulty drum machine, but it sounded more like he had simply forgotten the words: The band took a long time to give up after Butler did. “Never stop believing in the power of dreams,” Butler blushed. If he'd said that at any other time, you’d have taken him at his word.
Before an encore that paired the magesterial gallop of “Keep the Car Running" with the “Let It Be” of the iTunes generation, “Wake Up", Butler reminisced about a job he used to have, as a ticket-taker at Merriweather-like concert venue near Houston. He used to let fans sneak down to the front by the stage at every opportunity, he said.
His remark didn't provoke the stage-rush he might've intended, but it did what great bands, like this one, are supposed to do: demystify the music while nourishing the myth.
Arcade Fire at Merriweather Post Pavilion, Friday, Aug. 6, 2010
01 Ready to Start 02 Month of May 03 Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) 04 The Well and the Lighthouse 05 Half Light II (No Celebration) ABORTED 06 Neighborhood #2 (Laika) 07 No Cars Go 08 Haiti 09 Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) 10 The Suburbs/ The Suburbs (Continued) 11 Modern Man 12 Rococo 13 Intervention 14 We Used to Wait 15 Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) 16 Rebellion (Lies)