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Live review: Arcade Fire at the Shrine Auditorium

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

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.


Photo: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (3)

The Ugly: The traffic outside the Shrine was nasty causing me and many others to miss the first few songs. Miraculously found a spot on the street after missing entrance to parking structure.

The Bad: Technical and professional miscues. Can’t say if the former was due to poor acoustics, a bad mix or both, but sound seemed a bit muddled. The stage crew had a busy night for sure. Win Butler thanked the crowd “for coming out and watching us amateur hacks”.

The Good: Despite these issues, the band motored on professionally. There’s a positive spiritedness that’s twinned with fascinating dark observations in their music even if you feel Arcade Fire is plagued by its own sense of significance.

The Ecstatic: A tangible joyous exchange between artist and fans. Their music is so powerful and wondrous. How much fun to go to a show like this and lose your mind and get lost in the moment for an evening.

This is one of the best reviews of Arcade Fire I've read and captures perfectly the essence of what the band is all about, both on their albums and live. I've never exited one of their gigs without a sense of exhilaration whatever personal or socio-economic difficulties might prevail. Whatever it is they have, I wish they could bottle it. The only issue I have is that, for this world tour, they are missing the two brass players they had in 2007, Colin Stetson and Kelly Prat (to a total of ten members), who added yet another level of musical brilliance (and who could sing mightily), making the complete package. On the plus side they seem to have made the lovely Marika a permanent fixture. I also agree with Eric's comment that the band is starting to be plagued by its own sense of significance. The two gigs I've seen this year both witnessed Win Butler making the sort of mistakes he didn't use to. Perhaps he's having trouble adjusting to the reality of heading up the defining rock band of the 21st century. I hope not.
Manchester, UK, 13 Oct 2010

I agree that Arcade Fire is the best new band of the '00s.

I saw the latest episode of the Youtube show "Music Worth Buying" and the co-hosts feature a great overview of the band and "The Suburbs" album.

You can see that at www.Youtube.com/MusicWorthBuying

I know Aracade Fire will be around for years to come. I can't wait to see what they release next!


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