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Live review: Arcade Fire at the Shrine Auditorium

October 8, 2010 |  2:53 pm

There isn't a working band that has more fun playing live. The energy created is healing.

  ArcadeFire3Story
In the middle of Arcade Fire's set at the Shrine Auditorium on Thursday night, during its disco-dripping song “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), the group's lead singer Win Butler ran offstage and into the crowd. This isn't unusual for the band — onstage the eight-member (and counting) ensemble batters the fourth wall as hard as it thwacks its dozens of drums, keyboards, violins and other sundry noisemakers.

What was strange was what Butler did when he made it to the back aisles. He gathered some new friends among the legion of iPhone picture-snappers, brushed his sweaty southern-goth haircut to the side and stopped to watch his band play.

Even if his jaunt was a bit of lead-singer peacocking, Butler still must have felt what the many hundreds of thousands of Arcade Fire fans have suspected since the arrival of its 2004 debut album “Funeral” — that we're watching a rambling cast of accordion-playing Canadians grow into the defining rock band of the 21st century.

The group has played some of the biggest stages the world can offer, licensed a song to the Super Bowl and topped album charts while releasing its music through the scruffy indie label Merge. Arcade Fire's best songs, like the gang-chorus rapture of “Wake Up” and call-and-response burner “Rebellion (Lies),” will be on our oldies stations in 40 years.

And after three albums, including the latest “The Suburbs,” the band members have finally written enough of them that their Shrine show could even make their singer take a step back and revel in the grandeur.

ArcadeFirePromo Religious metaphors often come up when talking about Arcade Fire. It's no accident — the band records in a reclaimed church and plays festivals to tens of thousands of acolytes; it uses chamber strings and choir-sized harmonies; and many songs are about the impossible problems of human mortality. So watching it act like a saucy club band on Thursday, during the first of a two-night stand, felt enticingly jarring, like doing shots with your pastor.

By the end of the first song, the post-punkish new single “Ready to Start,” Butler was already thrashing about the crowd to the crackling bassline while the lanky multi-instrumentalists Richard Reed Parry and Butler's younger brother Will battled for control of an airborne floor tom. In the expertly Springsteen-jacking “Month of May,” Butler sneered at kids with their “arms folded tight” while charmingly botching a big swing of his microphone cable.

Arcade Fire offers concentrated doses of earnestness on record, but there isn't a working band around that has more abject fun playing live. In a year when joy is in short supply economically, the energy felt nothing less than healing.

Tragic themes

That implacable feeling of rejuvenation is the thing Arcade Fire does best. Each of the band's albums is grounded in some kind of tragedy: “Funeral” claws for solace amid familial death; “Neon Bible” draws its doom from endless war and theocrat grandstanding; “The Suburbs” feels the creep
of distant freeways and
emotional desolation in its spine.

The latter especially informed this set, with the wry castigations of “Modern Man” and the paranoid complacency of “The Suburbs'” title track underlining a
vision of a prosperity that leaves deep needs unmet. Yet a listener always exits feeling not battle-hardened, but flush with new hope.

It's these moments of emotional release that make strangers into harmonists. When the band carves out lyrical utopia in a snowstorm where “we forgot all the names we used to know,” or pines for a handwritten-letter nostalgia on “We Used to Wait,” it isn't promising good times or wishing better ones would return.

Longing and pining

Rather, it is creating space for empathy — for lost kids, for dead grandparents, for a poisoned earth and loveless homes.

On Thursday, singer-drummer Regine Chassagne's languid ribbon-dances and Parry's tambourine freak outs underscored the urgency of this project.

And by the time the band closed with “Wake Up,” as it's done for six years and will do for decades to come, nobody is watching. Everybody's singing.

august.brown@latimes.com

Photo: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

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