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April 30, 2007
What a difference a few years can make. When I last saw Arcade Fire, back in the fall of 2004, they hadn't quite broke yet (read: they weren't headlining Coachella). I caught the dynamic bunch of art punks at the Larimer Lounge, a tiny club in Denver, and an even smaller venue in Tucson, Solar Culture. Both shows were dazzling, and the combination of their kinetic energy and the intimate atmosphere of a few hundred folks made them very memorable. Those days are long gone, and now the band fires up crowds of a few thousand, setting up their gear in places like the downtown San Diego's historic Spreckels Theatre. That's exactly where I found myself on April 26, after a 400-mile motorcycle ride from Tucson.

Arcade Fire opened the Neon Bible tour at the start of the year, mostly in Canada and Europe, but had to cancel the last few weeks of shows to due an illness that brought down lead man Win Butler. San Diego was the first show back after Win's recovery, and the venue was a perfect place to start anew. The sold-out crowd of 1500 was spread out across the orchestra pit, a mezzanine, and a balcony that, from the floor, looked to be five stories up. The theatre was built in 1912 and has a distinct turn-of-the-20th-century aura: a high domed ceiling, Renaissance art and statues, and private seating areas along the sides. Never could the original architects have imagined that in the far future, this place was going to be thundering to the unique symphonics of a 21st century rock band.



As I walked in to the cavernous theatre I was nagged by a sneaking suspicion that, after seeing the band perform in cozy clubs, back in their infancy, this show could never match up. I would soon discover that I was dead wrong. The Funeral tour introduced the world to seven eclectic Canadians playing awfully good songs, trading instruments (Regine stomping away at the drums!), and banging motorcycle helmets on each other's heads. The new and improved Arcade Fire now goes to eleven: eleven musicians, playing awfully good songs, rotating instruments (Regine stomping away at the drums!), and banging motorcycle helmets on each other's heads. In a sense nothing has changed; but at the same time everything has changed.

The show began early, and just shy of 8pm opener Cass McCombs and his small band kicked off a solid set, singing to an audience of about half capacity, and did a respectable job warming up the gracious crowd. Although Arcade Fire are employing some bigger names as openers, including great-in-their-own-right New York band The National, McCombs got the job done, and later in the evening Win Butler thanked him for performing, recalling that when the two performed together years ago Arcade Fire had been the opener. After the hour-long set, the silent stage stood waiting to catch fire, and the capacity crowd was full of anticipation. Looking at the set-up, one could tell this was no ordinary rock ensemble: multiple guitars, pipe organ, horns, hurdy-gurdy, accordion, keyboards, strings, and yes, a motorcycle helmet hanging from a cymbal.



At 9:15 the group casually walked on stage and began with Neon Bible opener, "Black Mirror." It felt reassuring to hear Butler's towering voice resonate through the theatre, knowing that he had pretty much been rendered silent in Europe due to illness. The band looked thrilled to be back on stage - the hiatus was now officially water under the bridge. From there it was onto "No Cars Go," and it felt as if the show would be centered around Neon Bible, as have most of the 2007 concerts. But then came "Haiti," with a jubilant Regine Chassagne singing front and center, and then the band's quintessential live rouser, "Wake Up." To say the place went nuts would be an understatement, and this was only the fourth song. As the audience and band became fully intoxicated by the music, the show went into overdrive.

"My Body is a Cage" found a subdued Butler perched at the pipe organ, soulfully crooning; instead of slowing the momentum, it actually built it further. The set then switched back to Funeral with "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)," which highlighted one the best qualities of this group: every single musician is wholly involved in the forceful generation of notes, with instruments and vocals alike. The stellar musicianship and background voices from Regine, Will, Tim, Jeremy, Sarah and Richard add so much to the mix, I cannot think of another band that employs this integrative style to such effect. "Intervention" followed, propelling the crowd into a whirl with its melodic, methodic indictment of all worldly wickedness. "Ocean of Noise" was a welcome respite and showcased the two integral brass players at stage left, blowing the hell out of a French horn and saxophone.



In hindsight, the breather was necessary, as what followed was a Funeral triptych that threatened to bring the dome roof down. "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" began with its hallmark piano lead before busting into a tent-revival rush of real emotion. Every person in the theatre seemed to be singing along with every person on stage; most passionately were the three women grouped together, Regine and the two violinists, one of whom didn't even have a vocal microphone. Then "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" erupted and the thumping bass and drums created a spontaneous dance/mosh in the vacant photographer's pit. The band did an extended version of the song, adding a thunderous coda of several minutes, before leading directly into "Rebellion (Lies)," at which point the entire theatre was whipped into a trademark Arcade Fire frenzy. When security came to crash the moshers, Butler decided to jump off stage and join them, and a few of them jumped on stage and danced along as the band kept playing. The havoc subsided in short order, Butler returned to the stage, and the ensemble launched into "Antichrist Television Blues," barreling toward set closer "Keep the Car Running."

As the band exited the stage, Butler matter-of-factly stated "We're Arcade Fire, thanks and goodnight," and by then I doubt anyone in the house could have resonably expected them to give one ounce more. But an Arcade show isn't complete without a curtain call, and the band's first encore was the brisk "The Well and the Lighthouse." The second, "Neon Bible," provided a remarkable ending and an intimate way to say goodnight; after an hour and a half of sustained mania, the din subsided to the added touch of Butler rhythmically ripping pages out of a "bible."



There have been recent comparisons made between Arcade Fire and Bruce Springsteen. I have seen the Boss perform live in his earlier years, and can testify that he brings a similar go-for-broke vibe to his shows. But the comparison ends there: with Springsteen, it is Bruce front and center, with the E Street Band doing a great, but workmanlike, job of backing him up. Arcade Fire are able to harness the personal energy of every member, in their natural element, on a level rarely seen. They all clearly love the songs they're playing, which are among the best being written today, and their collective energy is contagious. Win Butler may be the central heartbeat of the band, but his wife, brother and everyone else on stage with him are just as vital. The beauty is that Butler knows it - the spotlight shines on all of them, an artistic assembly at the peak of their creative power. See them in your lifetime, no matter where, as I can attest that the venue size matters not.
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[Images 1-4 (above) by Ari Shapiro; images 5-11 (below) by Tiffany Parker]














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SEE ALSO: www.arcadefire.com
SEE ALSO: www.mergerecords.com

--
Ari Shapiro
A staff writer for LAS, Ari Shapiro mixes up pretty unique smoothies at XOOM in hot Tucson.

See other articles by Ari Shapiro.

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