If someone would have walked up to me in 2005 and asked me which ‘indie’ band I thought would be playing huge arena shows in less than 10 years, I doubt my answer would have included the words Arcade Fire. Seriously, Funeral is among my favorite albums of all time, but it didn’t exactly scream ‘commercially viable product’. In fact, I can think of a handful of bands that put out albums that year that would have come to mind before Arcade Fire — Wolf Parade, Bloc Party, The National, The Hold Steady, M83, Okkervil River, Sigur Rós…the list goes on and on. And while those bands have experienced varying levels of success (some way beyond what I would have ever imagined), not one of them can be found headlining Coachella in preparation for an international arena tour. Riding the wave of support (and speculation) that formed with their much-debated Grammy win for The Suburbs in 2010, the Montreal-based band is now touring in support of their latest effort, Reflektor, and they are doing so in style. Performing in 20,000+ capacity venues, with large stages, extremely elaborate lighting systems, and a total of 7 supporting musicians (not counting the 6 official members of the band), Arcade Fire have crossed over into the mainstream like no other ‘indie’ band since Radiohead.
Do they deserve the attention? Are they arena-ready? Should they be booking venues that house major sporting events? The answer will differ depending on who you ask, but my answer is yes, yes…and no.
Having seen the band on every major tour since 2005, I was not going to attend the show this week. The Pepsi Center (or any large arena for that matter) is just not conducive to a live music experience. I prefer my shows in a more personal format, and although I can’t claim to have ever seen Arcade Fire play a small venue, I had no desire to see the band at the Pepsi Center. There were three things that changed my mind. First, I had a friend who wanted to go because he had never seen them before. Second, I had a feeling that the new songs would be incredible in a live setting — it’s almost as if they were written with the arena in mind. Third, Arcade Fire have been doing big things lately. Whether it be the sounds on Reflekor, the guerrilla marketing campaigns, or the short films and videos…the band has proved that the fame hasn’t changed them. They are still art school kids, and who better to construct an arena-ready show than a bunch of art school kids with a bunch of money to blow? It was for these reasons that we bought GA Floor tickets, got in early to get a good spot (and to catch an excellent opening set from tUnE-yArDs, as well as the mindblowing skills of Candadian turntablist Kid Koala), and were well-primed for the show when the lights came on and “Reflektor” began.
It only took a few seconds before I knew that the ‘indie’ band I was obsessed with in 2005 had become one of the best arena-rock bands in an era where arena-rock is dead. The stage contained triple LED screens, a bay of moving mirrors which reflected various parts of the show and members of the audience, a 13-piece band who swapped instruments on the fly like it was no big thing, a light show worthy of mid-era Pink Floyd, and a B-Stage which was visited by a foil creature, the Bobblehead band and Régine Chassagne. Arcade Fire’s stage presence was a rare thing to see, especially from a band who formed post-90’s. I have read mixed opinions on the show as a whole, but I doubt anyone had anything bad to say about the visual aspect of the performance.
And that takes us to the music. There has been a lot of talk about the sound and Win Butler’s health. As for the sound, all I can say is that the concert took place in the Pepsi Center, so if you were up in the seats, I’m sure there was a lot to complain about, but from down on the floor, it sounded great. In fact, it sounded better than almost any show I’ve seen at the Fillmore or 1stBank Center (two other venues I try to avoid when possible). As for Win Butler’s health, I honestly didn’t notice he was sick until he announced that he was “deathly ill” before asking the crowd to sing-along with a song called “Pepsi Center”. The song was actually “The Suburbs” and from that point on I did notice that the frontman seemed to be struggling a little bit, but definitely not enough to take anything away from the show.
Butler might be the frontman, but he is only one man among many when it comes to an Arcade Fire show. The rest of the band was more than capable of picking up any slack that might have been the result of his health. In fact, I believe we witnessed a truly unique show because Butler was under the weather. What other city was lucky enough to see an Arcade Fire show completely dominated by the extremely talented Régine Chassagne? I’ve seen this band five times over the past nine years and I’ve never see Régine shine like she did on Wednesday night. Her background vocals found themselves extremely comfortable in the spotlight. You could tell she was enjoying it as well, as she shook herself all over the stage with a grin wide enough to light up the whole arena. Her performance of “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)”, surrounded by skeletons on the B-Stage, was only outdone by her rendition of “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” from the big stage. That song closed out the main set in style.
Cover songs have been a staple of the Reflektor Tour, usually taking the form of a song written by an artist from the city in which Arcade Fire are performing. There was quite a bit of speculation around what they would choose for the Pepsi Center, but the debate came to an end when the encore kicked off with the Bobbleheads performing John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” from the B-Stage. It turned out to be a short-lived performance, as the ‘real’ band members made their way back onto the main stage before the song was over. The first notes of “Normal Person” were layered over the classic Denver song, making it one of the most confusing and chaotic (not in a good way) parts of the night.
“Normal Person” led into a cover of The Ramones “I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement” which led into “Here Comes The Night Time”. It was about that time that it started raining confetti onto the crowd — a common last call for arena-shows, proving once again that Arcade Fire are an arena-band. But it was also the first time I really looked up at the seats surrounding those of us on the floor. There were a lot of empty ones. And even as the place echoed the sound of thousands of people singing along with “Wake Up” (oh!…oh-oh-oh!), it wasn’t the sound of 18,000 voices…it was much less than that.
Which brings us back to the questions…
Do they deserve the attention? Absolutely! Arcade Fire are incredible performers and amazing musicians. They have managed to became extremely successful without changing who they are. I will always be partial to Funeral, but I think the band is still at the top of their game.
Are they arena-ready? Absolutely! They came with everything they needed to fill that stage and entertain every person — from the floor to the rafters. They took full advantage of the large space, and even with Win Butler ill, they rocked the Pepsi Center for almost two hours.
Should they be booking venues that house major sporting events? No. At least not here in Denver. I doubt there were 10,000 people in attendance. The major factor being that people don’t like going to concerts at the Pepsi Center. Arcade Fire could sell out 4 nights at Red Rocks, drawing 36,000 people in the process, but they couldn’t get even half that to the Pepsi Center. It’s a shame, but it’s the truth.
I am glad I took the chance though. The openers were awesome. We had room to breathe on the floor. The sound was great down there. And for two hours, Arcade Fire made me forget I was in the Pepsi Center. It was one of the best shows of the year…at least from where I was standing.
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
Joan of Arc
Month of May
The Suburbs (Continued)
Ready to Start
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
My Body Is a Cage (short-version)
It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
Leaving on a Jet Plane (John Denver)
I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement (Ramones)
Here Comes the Night Time