Not any more

Why we love Arcade Fire – The Globe and Mail

In Canada on August 16, 2010 at 01:43
  • Arcade Fire
  • At Olympic Island in Toronto on Saturday

It has been quite an August for Arcade Fire

. After releasing its much-anticipated third album, The Suburbs, on the third, the Canadian-American combo played New York’s Madison Square Garden, an event chronicled on the Web through a video shot by director Terry Gilliam. A week later, Billboard announced that The Suburbs was the bestselling album in both the United States

and Canada, having shouldered aside discs by Eminem, Lady Gaga and (gasp!) Justin Bieber.

No wonder the band enjoyed a hero’s welcome as they clambered onstage for a triumphant, wide-ranging show at Toronto’s Olympic Island Saturday. Over the course of 18 songs, the Montreal-based ensemble showed the full spectrum of its strengths, from the emotionally charged songs of Funeral to the ornate soundscapes of Neon Bible, to the lean grooves and fierce intelligence of the current album. All were greeted with enthusiastic applause.

Win Butler, the Fire’s lanky front man, was clearly appreciative. “The first exciting show we ever played, with people lined up to see us, was in Toronto,” he said during the encores. “Thank you so much.”

That may explain why the band loves its audience, but why do we love them? Let me count the ways:

We love their collectiveness

There’s no mistaking the fact that Butler and his wife, Régine Chassagne, are at the helm of this ship. They do all the lead vocals and are the ones who talk to the crowd (and the media).

But that hardly means Arcade Fire is a front man/sidemen organization. Onstage in Toronto, the eight of them – all seven band members, plus touring violinist Marika Shaw – operated like a single organism, maintaining a tight, fluid groove despite regularly swapping instruments. Indeed, one of the best things about the band’s live sound was the way they layered lyrical, sustained melodies over choppy, straight-eight rhythm work, so the ebullience of the guitars in Modern Man or The Suburbs was slyly undercut by moody synth and string lines.

We love their generosity

It wasn’t just that $1 from every ticket for Saturday’s show went to the Haitian relief charity Kanpe. Arcade Fire were also generous to their opening acts, particularly psychedelic soul singer Janelle Monae, who preceded their performance with a blistering, one-hour set. “How privileged do you feel to see Janelle Monae, for the first time in Canada?” Butler asked the crowd later. “… She’s making us work up here!”

We love their weird instruments

Guitars and drum kits are old hat, and even synthesizers no longer seem new. But accordion? Glockenspiel? Hurdy-gurdy? That’s real alternative instrumentation.

Moreover, Arcade Fire genuinely rock their glock. Although they’re hardly glockenspiel pioneers – you can hear that bell-like tinkle in Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run – Arcade Fire emphasizes the instrument’s percussive quality, using it as much for drive as for melody in the likes of No Cars Go and Neighbourhood #2 (Laika).

We love their indie smarts

No sooner was it announced that The Suburbs made it to No. 1 than some bloggers began to carp that success merely proved that Arcade Fire was really just corporate rock in disguise. But the band, typically, was already one step ahead of its critics, and it was hard to miss the told-you-so undercurrent in Rococo when Butler sang, “They build it up just to burn it back down.”

Rococo, with its shimmering, ghostly synths and stomping guitars, was easily one of the evening’s highlights. But while the fan fervour was at its peak for old, familiar favourites from Funeral, particularly the snowy Neighbourhoods #1 (Tunnels) and the majestic Wake Up, the lean, rhythmically intense approach of The Suburbs went down almost as well, particularly when they got deep into the post-disco electropulse of Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).

We love their pop smarts

It doesn’t matter whether the mood in a song is sombre and ominous, as in the organ-drenched Intervention, or sunny and infectious, as on Haiti, there’s always a melody going on. Indeed, the most striking thing about Arcade Fire’s music is how much it glories in melody for its own sake, sprinkling catchy instrumental figures from the bass to the glockenspiel, and often ending songs with tuneful yet wordless vocals. No wonder the falsetto line at the end of the set-closing Rebellion (Lies) was echoed by the fans long after the band had left the stage.

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