The first time I heard of Arcade Fire was at a U2 concert during 2005's Vertigo Tour when U2 used the band's hit "Wake Up" as their intro music at the start of the show. (They were also an opening act for a part of that tour.)
The first time I saw Arcade Fire perform live was in 2007 at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia, an intimate 3,000 seat auditorium.
The first time I saw Arcade Fire play The Garden was last night and it was a special occasion not just because it was my first opportunity to see them play there but because it was the first time they had played at a venue of that magnitude (at least on this continent.)
The unlikelihood of Arcade Fire ever stepping on the hallowed ground that is the Madison Square Garden stage as the headliner is partially a result of the odds of an indie, Montreal-based baroque/rock band that features a French horn, cello, violin, harp, and accordion making it huge in America. But to a larger degree, this unlikelihood stems from the seeming notion that for much of their career they seemed totally disinterested in ever playing on such a stage. They shunned publicity, derided fame, and chose to play concerts in small churches and other untraditional venues because they thought it gave their shows a more spiritual ambiance.
For fans of indie music, Arcade Fire's emergence on the biggest stage in the world was a transcendent event as it signaled a more mainstream acceptance of one of the obscure bands we had idolized for the last half decade, a time in which we were told good rock music was pretty much dead, even though we knew better. The fact that Arcade Fire, a band that just a few years earlier on their last tour played only small venues, partly by choice, but also partly out of necessity, was going to being taking the stage at MSG was an event in itself. And then, of course, there was the actual show.
Opening for Arcade Fire was Owen Pallet and Spoon. We missed Owen Pallet but got there just in time for Spoon. I was not all familiar with their music, but Ami (who I went with) is a big fan so I decided to give them a chance and I was pretty pleased by what I heard. I will definitely give their material a fair chance in the near future.
Finally, at about 10:15pm, the lights went out and Arcade Fire took the stage. In what would be a hint of the breakneck pace at which the entire concert would transpire, the band members hurried to their instruments, without pausing for so much as a "hello" or a wave to the crowd and immediately broke into "Ready To Start," a perfect concert opener both in name and sound. It also contains the lyric that I think best captures the isolation of childhood and the need to conform to peer pressure that comes with it: "All the kids have always known/That the emperor wears no clothes/But to bow to down to them anyway/Is better than to be alone." Too bad this track wasn't ready for "Where The Wild Things Are."
After starting with that track off the brand new "The Suburbs," they followed it up with a trio of older classics: the heart pounding "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)," the epic "No Cars Go," and the French/English hybrid gem, "Haiti." Then it was back to "The Suburbs" as we were treated to "Half Light II," "Rococo", and "The Suburbs." I'll single out "Rococo" for praise as it was my favorite track on the album going into the show and really paid off as a live song. The song is as blatant an indictment of "hipsters" as I've ever seen and the reality of who the band's primary audience is made that attack even stronger. Although, I suppose the real targets of the song are probably the people that used to love Arcade Fire but now would never be caught dead going to one of their shows, but that's besides the point.
Next, it was back to old school for Funeral's "Crown of Love" and Neon Bible's "Intervention," followed by the new, unusually soft and sweet, "We Used To Wait" from the new record. What followed was by far my favorite part of the set, as they rattled off four straight songs of pure, unadulterated power rock: "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)", "Rebellion (Lies)", "Month of May" and "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)". It was performances like this four-song stretch that make Arcade Fire shows legendary: the reckless abandon with which they play and the total disregard for the wellbeing of their own instruments or of anyone else's eardrums. By the end of the set, the band seemed totally drained (the percussionist, for example, fell over in exasperation after having spent the last few minutes violently beating the marching band style drum strapped around his neck) and so were we. But the best was yet to come.
After a quick encore break, fortunately exactly timed to match the time it took me to run to the bathroom and back, we got Neon Bible's uplifting "Keep The Cars Running," a song that probably gets most of its recognition from having been covered by Foo Fighters (also it used to be my roommate's cell phone ring; now he uses the much worse "your phone is ringing" in the style of Will Ferrel.) They then diverted from the usual 2-song encore they had been using and managed to sneak in "Sprawl II," a song that is half disco/half MGMT.
And then finally, we were at the culmination. 4 loud roars of an engine starting, a few lone drum beats followed by a cymbal crash, and then 20,000 people singing in unison:
"Ohhhhh ohhhh ohhh ohh oh oh, ohhhhhh ohhhhhhh ohhh ohh oh oh, ohhhh ohh ohh oh oh oh oh...
...something filled up my heart with nothing...
...someone told me not to cry..."
It is not typical that a band's lone "hit" song is also their best. It is even less typical that this is a fact that is agreed upon by virtually all fans, casual and hard core, alike. But when it comes to Arcade Fire's masterpiece, "Wake Up" there is nothing typical. To call it "epic" would be overrating Homer's works. It's a song that makes you feel pain and joy at the same time, but most of all makes you feel alive.
"...if the children don't grow up, their bodies get bigger but their hearts get torn up..."
As the poster of a video of their performance of it with David Bowie a few years back wrote: "If you don´t cry watching this, you are dead inside." And as a commenter on the video posted from last night's show wrote, "i think that was the closest thing i've ever had to a religious experience." I think those comments as well as the videos themselves say more than I ever can to describe the beauty and majesty of this song.
With that they concluded, and so will I. Seeing this band play live is a truly remarkable musical experience, one that anyone who likes music should try to partake in. The good news is that they are playing again at MSG tonight (and yes, I will be there again.) Even if you aren't that familiar with their work, even if you've never heard even a single one of their songs, I would highly recommend going. They are a band whose live performances are so great that you can enjoy it and admire it without knowing a single lyric. And if that's the case, you are one of the lucky ones...
...because tonight could be the first time you ever heard Arcade Fire.
Ready to Start
Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
No Cars Go
Half Light II (No Celebration)
Crown of Love
We Used to Wait
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
Month of May
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
Keep the Car Running
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)