Arcade Fire: UIC Pavilion, 4-24-11

Thu Apr 28 2011
“If you guys are a good crowd, we’ll tell you all the joke song names we made for Easter today,” Win Butler announced a couple songs into Arcade Fire’s explosive set at the UIC Pavilion on Sunday, “but only if you’re good.”  It was the second show of a three-night stand in Chicago, and fans clapped along rampantly off-rhythm to every doggone song of the set and cried out their oo’s and oh’s and ah’s just like they were supposed to.  But it wasn’t enough, apparently; only one joke song title was revealed, and it was a good one.  If you read this whole review, I’ll tell you what it was.

Arcade Fire has had a shrewd business plan from the very beginning: put tons of soaring, wordless choruses into your songs.  Those are easier for the kids to sing along to, makes ‘em feel like they’re a part of something.  Plus, it’s got to feel good onstage, hearing ten thousand or so rabid fans singing in unison.  The cultish ambience at an Arcade Fire show (enhanced by the spectacle of the eight-member crew onstage, some of whom are often just banging haphazardly on various objects) makes the band seem huger than it actually is.  The effect is a more extreme version of love it/hate it: either you get swept up in the tidal wave and join the circus, or you roll your eyes and go, “they’re chanting again??” and avoid what is surely an insidious brainwashing.

One thing you can’t deny is the power of the songs, though.  Despite winning the Grammy for Album of the Year, 2010’s The Suburbs actually is a great album, and those tunes came alive on Easter Sunday in the confines of the dingy Chicago shed.  After a video montage featuring footage from a Windy City weekend gathering (according to one demonstrator’s sign, Judgment Day is coming in about three weeks), the band opened with “Month Of May”, which is almost punk rock when they do it live, and the energy barely let up for a second afterwards.  Butler & co. have a few ballads in their arsenal, but they don’t give you much time to breathe at a concert.  It was anthem after anthem Sunday night, and for those who surrendered to the group consciousness, it was a spiritual journey.

The two most unexpected highlights: just prior to the acoustic strum of “Rococo”, Win chanted “sugar plum fairy, sugar plum fairy”, in an obscure nod to the Beatles Anthology version of “A Day In The Life”; the similarity between the two songs’ beginnings never occurred to me until that moment.  The other was “My Body Is A Cage”, both for the magnificent performance by the band and because it may have been the only song of the night that didn’t feature the crowd attempting to clap along to the rhythm.  When this annoying herd behavior erupts spontaneously it’s tolerable, but when the musicians onstage command it every other song it smacks of megalomania.  Win’s proclamations about the band’s donations to Haiti relief and how good it makes him feel are similarly puzzling; once is enough, unless you’re just begging for adulation, ain’a?

If Arcade Fire wasn’t so amazing, these distractions might make me hate the band.  If any other artist of similar stature walked offstage after an hour and fifteen minutes, I’d feel insulted.  But because that 1:15 (plus three-song encore, which ended with “Wake Up Jesus, It’s Easter”) was so powerful and immaculate, I have no room for complaints.  I hope some day the band achieves the U2 status Win clearly craves so he can loosen up a bit and stop being so desperate for his fans’ admiration, but as things stand today, there are only a handful of bands on the planet that put on as powerful a show.  The scary part is how great these guys could be.
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