Photo by Chromewaves (Frank Yang) in the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
One of the best ways to characterize Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, compared to their previous effort, Funeral, came from a review several months back (on a website whose name, sadly, escapes me): where Funeral was dark yet triumphant, Neon Bible “lurches.” In tracks like “My Body is a Cage,” the title “Neon Bible,” and “Intervention,” there is a kind of a steady, dark thump that moves each song forward—the sound of Neon Bible is, ironically, more funeral-esque than Funeral. A stereotypical dark and stormy night seemed an appropriate setting, then, for the Arcade Fire to play the first show of a two-night stay at Massey Hall.
Playing to a steadily-filling but nonetheless receptive crowd, the Handsome Furs—Dan Boeckner of the Wolf Parade’s side-project with his fiancée Alexei Perry—opened and dealt, well, handsomely, with some annoying audience participation. (“Play “My Sharona!”” was met with something like “”Free Bird,” what? Oh, “My Sharona.” By The Knack. Here, I’ll play “Hearts of Iron,” I wrote it.””) Perry’s rough, nervous beats on the synthesizer rub up against Boeckner’s rough guitar and nervous voice, leading to twitchy and dark tracks like “What We Had” that you can still, somehow, dance to. After the Furs left the stage, the crowd—some paying hundreds of dollars for seats—continued filling out Massey Hall, as the roadies pieced together the last bits of the Arcade Fire’s set.
And then, the lights dimmed. Over the half-dozen circular television screens placed in giant red cones around the stage, a clip played of a female televangelist ranting about having her body’s waste (and her sin?) sucked out of her, and espoused the benefits of removing her shoes as she paced across her pulpit, and—well, uh, it was hard to figure out what was going on. As the clip finished and the band walked on stage, everyone, to quote ourselves, lost their shit.
The Arcade Fire immediately launched into incredibly strong versions of “Black Mirror” and “Keep The Car Running,” lead singer Win Butler inviting the crowd at orchestra level, standing in their seats, to come up right against the stage (they obliged). Given the death of one particular televangelist the night before, Neon Bible‘s recurring motifs of religion and television proved especially fitting; before starting the band’s next track, “Antichrist Television Blues,” about the exploitation of innocence for the sake of financial gain (originally titled “Joe Simpson,” after Jessica’s father), Butler spat out a half-delighted “Rest in Peace, Jerry Falwell.” The night would not see much more audience interaction (beyond regular singalongs and clapalongs, of course), but the moment was strange, cathartic, beautiful, off-putting, the music of the Arcade Fire condensed into an epitaph.
The rest of the night was not, unfortunately, as perfect; instead, it was underscored by technical difficulties and that bad bad thing called high expectations. During “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” Butler turned to the tech staff manning the levels and, three times, each more frustrated than the last, yelled at them to fix his guitar. Several times, the crucial instruments in songs—like the notes on the organ at the start of “Intervention,” or the strings pretty much ever—were barely audible. Feedback was a regular problem. And, in one song, about half the band sounded out of tune (at least it seemed so from the front row, pressed up against stage left). The tech staff, admittedly, had a big job—at least a dozen amps, ten people, and two dozen instruments were on stage throughout the night—and the little things that went wrong on their end don’t mean much in isolation. The roughness of the Arcade Fire’s music belies the intricacy of their arrangements, however; rough and loose are not synonymous, and the accumulation of the little tech issues is indicative of a show that needs to be tightened up (and will be tonight, hopefully?).
Perhaps, though, the Arcade Fire simply suffer from a reputation for putting on absolutely fucking fantastic live shows, so that anything but absolutely fucking fantastic feels like a disappointment. They play in the crowds; they play in the balconies; they play with David Bowie, or U2, or Final Fantasy and Beirut; they play in Ottawa high schools. The obsessive amount of coverage given their live shows—look, we’re doing it right now—means that concert-goers are informed by the band’s past of doing pretty much everything on (and off) stage. When, like last night, the band plays a straight, honest-to-goodness good show, it feels like a let-down.
Photo by trini from Flickr.
Still, a little less than transcendent is still pretty fucking great, and there were many many high points of the night. When “My Body is a Cage” swelled up and reached its climax, you could actually feel the thump of wind come out from the speakers at the front of the stage. “No Cars Go,” which on Neon Bible didn’t match the brilliance of the original arrangement of the band’s 2003 E.P., was better than either version live, attaining a careful balance between the original’s rawness and the Bible‘s containment. Win Butler, Régine Chassagne, and Richard Parry, the core of the band, were absolutely fantastic live performers, each endlessly energetic, endlessly entertaining, and endlessly talented. (Watch Win sweat! Watch Régine dance! Watch Richard hit things with other things!) The elaborate set had a few tricks, as well: throughout the night, for instance, the television screens would display the band playing, live, from cameras placed in positions like on top of Parry’s megaphone looking back at him yelling into it, or underneath Régine’s drums, looking up at her slight body turned into something like King Kong.
At the end of the night, the band granted the crowd two encores, ending with the drawn-out “In the Back Seat.” As the band played the last part of the song over and over again, softer and softer, a sold-out Massey Hall was almost completely quiet for the first time in the evening, the hum from the sea of amps finally dim. As the band played, hinted at finishing, the crowd swelled up, cheering, then subsided again to near quiet when the band kept on—a perfect ocean of noise. While, earlier in the evening, the organ at the beginning of “Intervention” may not have come through loud and clear, the lyrics certainly did: “The king’s taken back the throne.” This band deserves the pedestal it has been granted by its fans; this band has earned it. The king’s throne is now theirs to relinquish.