Here Comes the Night: Arcade Fire Live at Barclays Center
An overwhelming display of weirdness; this is what I experienced at the Arcade Fire show on August 24th. Yes, the Montreal-based band certainly delivered a characteristic set chock-full of hits and top-notch instrumentation. But what cemented the experience in my mind as truly memorable was simply the sheer eccentricity of it all.
In ‘Normal Person,’ a rock-leaning track off of the band’s 2013 double-album ‘Reflektor,’ lead-singer Win Butler riffs on the idiosyncrasy of its namesake: “Is anything as strange as a normal person? Is anyone as cruel as a normal person?” The song reflects (pun intended) on the general apathy that is almost expected of average people growing up in the modern world and the lengths they must go to in order to fit in with society. Butler chastises those who shun others simply because they are different, a theme running throughout the album. Normal is not an ideal; rather, individuality is to be embraced.
As the third night of a three-night stint at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, as well as the near-culmination of a year-long international tour, this particular show was (understandably) a prime candidate for provoking feelings of repetitiveness and exhaustion in the band.
A Grammy-winning band as accomplished as Arcade Fire is surely just as prone to burnout as any other artist. My fears were largely dispelled when the band shuffled onstage and energetically launched right into its hit single ‘Reflektor’ from its latest album of the same name. A deep, powerful dance beat was played to the accompaniment of shimmery synths, and the band slid into a deliciously funky groove. Audience members bobbed their heads excitedly to the woozy beats of the music. Things seemed to be going fairly well.
And then came the synchronized interpretive dance troupe of high-heeled male dancers. And the papier-mâché bobble-headed dummy-band. And the glimmering disco-ball of a man covered in reflective mirrors ('The Reflektor Man’), dancing refracted light onto the entirety of the stadium. Shifting mirror screens surrounded the band as they performed. Lead singer Win Butler donned his performing uniform, a jagged-looking skeleton-patterned suit with bright red shoes and face-paint. Fans arrived to the show dressed-up and costumed like it was Halloween. By the end of Arcade Fire’s show, there must have been over twenty people onstage—band members playing instruments, the aforementioned bobble-heads flailing around, ribbon-twirlers, and so on.
Many of these gimmicks made sense in context. The stiletto-clad dancers accompanied a performance of ‘We Exist,’ a song that denounces homophobia and the unfair treatment of people who are widely perceived as different. The dazzling array of mirrors was intended as an obvious reference to ‘Reflektor.’ The band encourages fans to dress up for its shows. And yet, when experienced together, all of these impressive quirks contributed to an undeniable aura of mystique and unpredictability surrounding the evening. Normal was not to be expected. Extravagance reigned supreme.
The night featured not one but three opening acts: Canadian rock act The Unicorns, post-punk veterans Television, and the bizarre electronica performance-art of Dan Deacon. It remains unclear what exactly these acts had in common with one another.
Arcade Fire’s performance was also replete with subtle and not-so-subtle homages to other artists. Win Butler introduced ‘The Suburbs’’ deep-cut ‘Rococo’ with snippets from The Beatles’ ‘Helter Skelter.’ The band’s encore performance began with a confusing dummy-band in the middle of the stage dancing to ‘All My Friends’ by LCD Soundsystem, the indie-dance-punk project of James Murphy. Murphy, who also produced ‘Reflektor,’ received yet another shout-out as Butler began ‘Normal Person’ by singing “New York, I love you, but you’re bringing me down,” a poignant line from the closing track on LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Sound of Silver.’
In a surprising guest spot, the legendary David Byrne, former frontman of Talking Heads, joined the band onstage for a cover of Suicide’s ‘Dream Baby Dream.’ This was the most recent instance of Arcade Fire’s tradition of covering songs associated with the cities in which it performs, another tactic meant to keep concertgoers on their feet and pay tribute to the band’s influences.
Regine Chassagne, who is the band’s other frontperson as well as Butler’s wife, also took the lead on a few songs, including ‘The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’ and ‘Haiti.’ Clad in a sparkling dress and contorting her body in jubilant movement, Chassagne playfully traded lines with Butler on ‘Reflektor’s’ ‘It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus).’ The interplay between husband and wife was both endearing and exhilarating.
The night concluded, as do all of Arcade Fire’s performances, with a rousing rendition of ‘Wake Up,’ the crowd of hundreds chanting along animatedly to every syllable of the wordless chorus. It remains astounding just how many anthemic songs the band has accumulated over the course of only four studio albums. Songs from the band’s critically acclaimed 2001 debut album, ‘Funeral,’ with their sing-along lyrics and grandiose instrumentalism, still feel urgently epic nearly ten years later. The band’s second album, ‘Neon Bible,’ has been largely ignored this tour; only ‘No Cars Go’ and a shortened version of the slow-burning ballad ‘My Body is a Cage’ appeared in the setlist.
Like all good music should, Arcade Fire’s music transports the listener to a different realm. Whether it is the quiet, contemplative tension of the suburban landscape from one’s childhood or the vibrant tribal rhythms of the Haitian pier as nighttime slowly falls, the band’s music works best by projecting a mood. ‘Reflektor’ serves as a solid blueprint for a spirited live set, one more suitable to the stadiums in which the band has been performing than to the recording studio. The album’s concentration of upbeat, dance-driven tunes lends itself to beefy live versions and maintains a steady level of dance-worthy energy. It was nearly impossible to stay still throughout the bouncy keyboard hook of ‘Here Comes the Night Time’ or the warble-y bass pulsing of ‘Afterlife.’ Arcade Fire puts on the best party in town, and this party was infectious.
The extravagance of the show can be particularly appreciated when contrasted with the band’s fairly modest origins. Arcade Fire personifies somewhat of an indie success story; a little-known band from Canada that went on to gradually add band members and augment its sound until it was conquering stadiums and arenas internationally. This sense of triumphant success was palpable by the end of the show as the band marched off the stage and through the crowd, continuing to play ‘Wake Up’ with only horns sounding and fans singing along.
Despite my nosebleed seats, I left the show feeling both entertained and inspired. Arcade Fire’s blazing performance of hits coupled with its extravagant showmanship and musical fervor had me dancing vigorously even on the upper balcony. Yes, the evening was inexplicably bizarre, but who wants a normal, straightforward concert anyway? As Butler himself screamed out emphatically over the careening guitars of ‘Normal Person:’ “If that’s what’s normal now, I don’t want to know.”