May 2, 2011
It’s hard to imagine that when Arcade Fire first came to Chicago six years ago they played a dive bar with a 400 person capacity. As recent youtube videos have pointed out, they were opening for bands at house shows before that. The Canadian eight-piece, who now have a #1 album under their belt and Grammy for Album of the Year, have truly become one of the most worldwide acclaimed and beloved rock bands of this generation. The passion that their multitudes of fans have for the band is only matched by their own passion for playing music and these two unstoppable forces collide every time they play a live show. Arcade Fire truly leaves everything on stage, every time they play, which is why seeing them in concert is such an amazing experience.
What made this particular run of shows special was the opening act, The National, who are just about the only other band in the world that I love as much as Arcade Fire. The Brooklyn quintet have achieved a great deal of success, finishing up a massive headlining tour in support of their latest album High Violet (including a spectacular show at The Pageant in St. Louis, which I was lucky enough to see). If there’s a band next in line to achieve Arcade Fire’s level of success, I would venture to say that The National would be it, and they definitely proved their worthiness with their solid opening performance.
I arrived at UIC Pavillion just as The National were beginning their hour-long set and got settled in time to catch some of my favorite songs of theirs including “Bloodbuzz Ohio” “Conversation 16” and “Slow Show”. It’s always a pleasure to watch the band’s slowly building intensity unfold live, I don’t know if there’s any band that dominates the loud / soft dynamic quite like they do. The band’s depth continues to be one of their strongest point. with Bryan Devendorf’s fervent drums, the Dressner brothers’ whirlwind of guitar, the majestic touring brass section adding a density to the brooding songs. Of course, Matt Berninger’s booming vocals is the anchor that holds all it all together, even when yowling to the point of his voice almost giving out (my friend was convinced that he had to have been in a hardcore band at some point).
The band filled out the set with a few surprises, Richard Reed Parry joined them on “Afraid of Everyone” and Win Butler came out to duet with Matt Berninger on “Start a War” (causing him to note “he’s so much taller in person”). It was great to see that even with the shorter set time Matt was still able to interact with the crowd, at one point throwing jellybeans out and telling us they were each filled with a flash drive that contained a new Flaming Lips single (LOL!). The band ended with the one-two punch of “Mr. November” and “Terrible Love”, two of the most uproarious, rousing songs in their catalogue. and if anyone in the crowd wasn’t paying attention at that point, they were when the huge choruses of those songs shook the stadium.
After a thirty minute break, the mood was set with some 80’s-style b-movie trailers that were both thematically fitting and hilariously campy played under a marquee that said “Coming Soon. Arcade Fire!”. As the trailers finished playing, the “feature presentation” began and the Arcade Fire opened with the relentless punk energy of “Month of May”, a song that I don’t really care for on record, but is undeniable in a live setting. The band followed with one of it’s most visceral tracks, “Rebellion (Lies)”, a song usually saved for the end of the set but worked brilliantly as an early shot in the arm for the crowd, especially with Win venturing through the audience and his brother Will carrying around a tom drum and banging it like a madman. The band continued with Funeral classic “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)”, another showcase for the band’s superb percussive qualities before focusing on their latest opus The Suburbs for a few songs.
The most fascinating aspect of seeing Arcade Fire live is the incredible spread of talent and personality across the stage. Win Butler is a sensational front man and his commanding presence and intense glare adds enormous weight to his fiery vocals. His wife Regine Chassagne shares lead vocal duties while playing everything from drums and keys to accordian and hurdy gurdy, making her a prime candidate for most versatile member of the group. Also in contention would be Richard Reed Parry and Will Butler, who are both electrifying as expert multi-instrumentalists, shifting as the songs require from guitars, keys, strings, to auxiliary percussion and doing so with absolutely infectious energy and passion. Sarah Neufield and Marika Shaw play the all-important role of contributing the gorgeous strings flourishes that are so instrumental band’s sound, while the two criminally underrecognized members, drummer Jeremy Gara and bassist Tim Kinsbury each perform their duties with incredible precision and flair.
One of the biggest surprises was the band’s performance of “My Body Is A Cage” the powerful closer to Neon Bible that is something of a rarity in their live show. Only a select few tracks the band’s second album made it into their set, including the spine-tingling “Intervention” and lush, anthemic “No Cars Go” and all the tracks played seemed to be chosen to amplify the band’s massive scope. Even the more mid-tempo tracks like “Rococo” and “The Suburbs” were played with an emotional heft and vigor that made the night an altogether uplifting experience. The band’s stage set-up also reflected that goal with flags decorating the stage and a three-part video screen that mixed a live feed of the band with vintage graphics and selected clips from Scenes From The Suburbs, the film the band worked on with Spike Jonze.
The band’s final stretch began with two of their finest jams from Funeral, the thoroughly danceable “Haiti” and perhaps the band’s most beautifully realized anthem “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” which was lovingly accompanied by snow flurries on the video screens. After Win spent another song wading through the adoring crowd during the extraordinary “We Used To Wait”, they unleashed their most riveting, bon-a-fide thrasher on the audience “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” which delivered a jolt of energy that didn’t let up for the rest of the night. The set ended with the triumphant synth-pop number “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” which saw Regine taking the reins on vocals delivering a blissful performance complete with jazz hands and ribbon-dancing.
After a short break the band returned with “Ready to Start”, which was bestowed with a extended disco-like ending followed by a rapturous performance of “Keep The Car Running”. The band ended the night in the most perfect way possible, with “Wake Up” (which Win announced as “Wake Up Jesus, It’s Easter!”) which easily received the biggest reception of the evening, creating a genuinely transcendent, even life-affirming moment as the entire band and the crowd joined in singing the bombastic “oooh, oooh” chorus. It’s the type of moment that the oft-overused word “epic” should be saved for, with the crowd of thousands dancing in the aisles, raising their hands in the air and their voices to the sky in complete harmony. I was left in a state of pure unbridled joy and from hearing the exhilarated, hyperbolic reviews from other people leaving the stadium, I’m pretty sure that mine was a universally shared sentiment. Arcade Fire and The National provided everything I hoped for and more, an overwhelming and mind-blowing show that I’m positive will go down as one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.
View many more Arcade Fire / The National pictures after the jump. Click here for the entire set.