we found the light
initially, i ignored the arcade fire. like shannon from stars like fleas commented to me, i thought at first they were another overly-hyped indie dance-rock act with pretensions of being the next interpol. of course, i based this assumption on the snippets of accolades, ubiquitous ads and name-dropping that have been unavoidable since about this time last year. i finally decided to give them a try upon seeing funeral in a listening station in tower records. i wasn't impressed right away. what i heard sounded very simplistic, following all the hallmarks of indie rock tradition. however, two things stuck in my memory: the quaint production/instrumentation (somehow reminiscent to me of magical mystery tour) and the frayed edges of win butler's voice.
after repeatedly listening to clips online, i realized i needed to give them more of a chance and got the CD. by the time i realized how great it was, they'd already come and gone from nyc twice. i thought i had no chance of seeing them until after a new album. fortunately, CMJ invited them back for a benefit for central park summerstage. my fellow convert shannon would have been there too if he wasn't playing in the silent league at another CMJ showcase the same night.
opening act belle orchestre sounded wonderful online, so i was even happier to get there early to make sure i had a good spot. i instantly recognized the upright bass player, since he's also in the arcade fire (and more than one person has mentioned his resemblance to a certain recent movie character). the violinist is also an AF touring member, but here she was clearly on of the main forces, at least onstage. she commanded the stage with both her playing and her body language. there were also a drummer, a trumpeter/keyboardist, and a french horn player. their set was brief but very pleasant. it had more passion than a lot of similar instrumental music.
next up were sound team, who came up from austin texas at the request of AF for this show. their name was apropos, as six young men lined up with their instruments as if on an assembly line. the singer reminded me a bit of hamilton leithauser from the walkmen, and when he pushed his voice he gained a weathered, joe cocker-like gurgle-and-rasp. since he switched between guitar and a distorted electric piano, at times there were 3 keyboards pumping away. i definitely appreciated the moog's sounds bringing some distinctiveness to the music. they took awhile to get both their energy and their sound mix going, but once they did they were fairly enjoyable, especially the very solid bassist. the crowd was thick by this time, and ripe with anticipation.
the arcade fire took the stage dressed, appropriately, for an early 20th-century funeral, which must have been horribly uncomfortable in the humidity. looking like a tattered chamber orchestra (there were 8 of them onstage, sometimes also joined by the french horn player from bell orchestre), they began at a stately pace with the album opener "tunnels". it quickly increased in tempo and excitement. whether they had microphones or not, every member was singing nearly every word of the song with all their heart, as was the crowd. from beginning to end, the show was like a giant celebration of spirit, both band and and audience giving as much as they possibly could and more. the unfamiliar songs came from their self-titled EP (mental note: pick up the recently remastered reissue). even songs i didn't care for as much were given new life in this setting. all the members switched instruments several times, which must have been a soundman's nightmare.
at any given moment, various members added percussion or roamed around the stage screaming key lyrics at the audience. there were several little improvised mini-tableaus enacted by various duos, as they would attack each other playfully with microphone cables, flags, lengths of tape, or their bare hands. rather than coming off as unprofessional it seemed like we were witnessing some kind of guerilla theater group who also happened to be musicians. they can't be called the tightest band in the world, but nothing registered as sloppy or mistaken, only an incredible outpouring of emotion and relentless energy.
towards the end they played three incredible renditions that, taken separately, could each have served as the climactic song to the night. the first was the fragile "in the backseat," one of the few songs that featured butler's wife regine chassagne on lead vocals. if she was impressive playing drums on the first song (as well as her backup yelping, piano and accordion playing), here she outdid herself. while she was playfully entertaining on "haiti", all coquettish looks and mock-mime motions, on this ballad she laid herself bare, singing and tearing at the air as though she was ripping her soul out at the memory of the song's inspiration. the ending was drawn out by every member repeatedly singing the gorgeous rising violin melody. the crowd was so quiet you could even hear the ones without microphones.
a buildup of dissonant noises coalesced into their popular single "power out," which was drawn out longer and felt like the end of the show. however, after the song stopped, it seemed like it was coming back for an extended jam session. instead the beat slowed down and somehow morphed into another favorite, "rebellion (lies)".
at this point i was more than satisfied. we were all hot and sweaty, both physically and emotionally drained (yet strangely invigorated). i couldn't think of a song i needed to hear that i hadn't yet, and i was ready to go home. if i hadn't been dead center near the front of a huge crowd i might have tried to leave. but i knew they had to come back. encores at big shows have become so de rigeur as to be predictable and boring. fortunately they didn't make us wait long to come back (something i always appreciate). i was hoping whatever they did wouldn't be some obscurity for longtime fans only that would pale before the preceding three songs.
the band barely had time to strap their instruments back on before butler said "this is a david bowie song." i cheered along appreciatively until my jaw dropped a few seconds later when bowie himself walked onstage. the crowd roared as they immediately launched into bowie's "queen bitch," one of my favorite songs on the somewhat under-appreciated (in relation to ziggy stardust) hunky dory album. the band basically playing backup to bowie. he looked and sounded great, although it seemed as though he was dressed as 'the thin white duke goes on caribbean holiday'. as if that wasn't enough, bowie then grabbed an acoustic guitar and led the band through their own "wake up," singing lead vocals on the first few verses. it was a perfect fit, since the song had always struck me as some kind of lost bowie tune penned for mott the hoople spliced with an earthier remake of "modern love". it was as though it was simply being reclaimed by its spiritual father.
with only three and a half months left, i will probably not see a better show this year. but i can hope.
the title of this post comes from "power out."