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Grammys 2011: Arcade Fire at the Ukrainian Cultural Center

February 12, 2011 |  4:07 pm

“It was 40-below when we left Montreal to come here,” Win Butler said during a break in Friday night’s Arcade Fire show at the Ukrainian Cultural Center, simultaneously L.A.’s best- and worst-kept musical secret of the weekend. “So L.A., let me tell you that we are really, really happy to be here.”

Weather aside, it’s weird to think of Arcade Fire needing a reprieve, 48 hours before the most high-profile set they’ve ever played, performing in a prime slot on the 2011 Grammy Awards. But while the band has always aimed huge -- dozen-strong harmonies, choruses that feel like hymns, headlining major festivals the world over –- its heart is loyal to the small things -- the tiny terrors of suburban blight and tunnels carved in snowfalls. So on the eve of the most scripted, self-laudatory night in popular music, Arcade Fire got out of Dodge and threw a punk show.

The firewall blocking information leading up to the show could have repelled Julian Assange, so the genial non-chaos of the show’s logistics came as a welcome surprise. Lines moved quickly, sodas and cotton candy were free, the all-ages vibe befitting Arcade Fire’s “us kids know” youth-noir, and credit goes to promoters Goldenvoice and FYF’s Sean Carlson for not overselling the show. If someone hasn’t reclaimed the Ukrainian Cultural Center as a full-time concert venue (hmm?), they need to do so soon.

The eight-piece Arcade Fire is a spectacle from any distance, but the most revelatory thing about this close-up set was the chance to watch their faces. Regine Chassagne plays with the coyness of a prowling panther, the crazy gleam in her eye tempered by the pagan joy in her ribbon-twirling. Win Butler got a lot of Springsteen comparisons on “The Suburbs,” and live they’re even more earned when he turns his back to the mic and rips through baritone jibes at “kids with their arms folded tight.” And his little brother Will plays, well, the consummate little brother, taking breaks from synth duty to scale the rafters and batter everything he can get his hands on with drumsticks, including Win’s torso. From 50 feet away, even the band’s longtime violinist, Sarah Neufeld, revealed a flinty, beatific charisma.

The hour-and-a-half set stuck to the heart of their catalog: “Rebellion (Lies),” “Month of May,” “No Cars Go,” and an unexpectedly early run through the band’s anthem “Wake Up.” And it’s a testament to their editing powers that three albums into their career they already have what amounts to a greatest-hits set. The sound was, naturally, a little foggy on the string section and more delicate synthetics, but the band seemed truly thrilled to be in a bunker like this, holed up with a few hundred fans who slept outside record stores to be here. And the payoffs were unlike anything we’re going to see from Arcade Fire in this kind of space again -- a long-form disco take on “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” with a concussion bomb of strobe lights and a jubilant “Haiti” that felt like it could save Chassagne’s country of ancestry with sheer will.  

By the time a brave teenage-looking soul broke every rule of L.A. hipster decorum and crowd-surfed through the entire audience on the encore of “Keep The Car Running,” the room went berserk and the band members grinned like they hadn’t seen this in years. It was one unbridled reaction they won’t see Sunday night, and you can’t help but think that even when they get 70,000 Coachella-goers at their disposal a few months from now, they’re going to miss this.

-- August Brown

Video uploaded by YouTube user anziano311