"Some bands -- the best bands, I would argue -- you can't understand unless you see them do what they do live. The Arcade Fire is one of those bands."I was pretty squarely on the look out for exhibitions of scenesterism on Sunday night as we waded through the entrance to the Calgary Corral Centre, over to the will-call booths, and then up to our seats. As much as I was looking forward to seeing the The Arcade Fire, I kept thinking to myself that they struck me as the perfect musical vehicle for our never-ending creative turf wars. A scenester soundtrack if ever I’d heard one.
Like so many bands, The Arcade Fire has and continues to have a lot of hype surrounding them. The difference I discovered between The Arcade Fire and so many other bands is that against my reserved skepticism, they absolutely lived up to that hype.
That is honestly pretty rare, in my experience. All sorts of bands get all sorts of hype for all sorts of different reasons. Some of it is well earned, lots of it is not. Bands evolve in scenes and the music industry is always in search of the next scene. Scenes have a way of being overtly self-congratulatory and if one such scene happens to seem like it has a bit of an edge over others, its self-promotion often becomes the talking points for a record company’s attempts to sell the scene as “the next big thing”.
After the explosion of grunge music in the nineties, for example, record labels and music producers scoured the country side in search of the next Seattle. Of course, it never really appeared, though a whole slew of lookalike bands made their way to the airwaves. Some, like Stone Temple Pilots, had some staying power and, over time, carved out their own musical identity. Others, like Creed, quickly sailed off into the sunset of obscurity they were always destined to meet.
Scenester music isn’t bad, per se. It just tends to be a bit glorified. And my opinion, both as a consumer and creator of music, is that that glorification is ultimately a bastardization of the creative musical process. It is expression from the head rather than expression from the heart. A projection of the stories one tells one’s self (usually about one’s self), rather than an expression of the stories one experiences. And it is all too common a trapping for musicians of any broad genre or time (see for example: My Chemical Romance).
But the show I saw Sunday night was no scene. It was simply a staging ground for great music. Music that manages to hit that infinitely high bar of deserving to be called art.
A lot has been made of Win Butler, Régine Chassagne, and the motley crew that back them up. The Arcade Fire’s music is nothing if not eclectic, idiosyncratic, and mischievous. And in that regard they are a Canadian band worth paying attention to.
But some bands — the best bands, I would argue — you can’t understand unless you see them do what they do live. The Arcade Fire is one of those bands.
The Arcade Fire toured furiously to support 2007’s Neon Bible, but last night was the first time I’ve ever seen them live. It made all the difference.
Listening to The Arcade Fire’s albums versus seeing them live is sort of like the difference between the intensity of an orgasm you get by masturbating versus what you get from intimately connected sex. The orgasm via masturbation is nice and we’ve all had our moments where it gives us what we need. No one ever really says no to that orgasm, but it is a solitary affair that leaves the act feeling not quite complete.
But the orgasms that we all remember are the ones that make us cry out, that cause our bodies to shake and convulse, that make us dig our nails into the closest shoulder, and that leave us collapsed in a heap in someone else’s arms. Experiencing The Arcade Fire’s music, like a great orgasm, is meant to be a shared affair.
Like any good concert goer, I spent some time with Funeral and Neon Bible before the show. I didn’t listen to The Suburbs at all for no particularly good reason other than I didn’t get around to it, except for what I’ve heard of Ready To Start on the radio. Which is to say that I familiarized myself with the recorded collection of The Arcade Fire’s music.
They proceeded to rip that familiarization apart from the outset of the first song.
Every song came alive watching the nine piece multi-instrumentalist collective bound from side to side. And I don’t mean that in the obvious sense. It was as though I had gone from reading their music in print to seeing the characters I’d read about not just on a television or computer screen, but actually inflate and come to life in front of me. Songs that I thought I knew did things I would never had dreamed of which they were capable. Like the shock of going from a third-person to a first-person familiarity with a real person, these songs were individuals I’d never met, part of a family I’d only heard about.
The songs I came to hear, like Keep the Car Running, Rebellion, and Wake Up, paled in comparison to songs to which I’d barely paid any attention, like Neighbourhood #3, No Cars Go, and Ocean of Noise. And a song that I had actively disliked prior to the concert (Haiti), was the one that solicited my most pronounced response.
I can’t grapple enough with the fact that I’ve never gone into a concert disliking a song and come out liking it, a lot.
The set up itself was relatively straight forward. Stage, lights, a lot of instruments, a few interesting props (at one point Régine pranced around with cheerleader pom-poms that looked like they had just come out of a Tim Burton movie). But the point wasn’t to pay attention to anything other than a collection of honest to god artists get lost in their craft.
There were points where I wanted to rock out and bounce around and scream, but I couldn’t. I was transfixed; paralyzed and overwhelmed at a deep level to what I was witnessing and experiencing. It was all I could do, bracing myself over and over, to take it all in.
The whole thing was just so big. And by that I don’t just mean it was loud — which, of course, it was. But it was this massive, rich, layering that was visceral in its effects. One can often stand back and appreciate what one is hearing, but this orgy of sound demanded immersion.
The music was not unlike the kind of full-body experience that one gets from eating really amazing food. The senses are utterly polluted with decadence; strangled from acknowledging anything else. You are consumed by a depth of connection to what is directly in front of you in a way that makes your previous experiences seem like pablum. It leaves you broken to even a passing appreciation of the banal.
And unlike any person pantomiming in a scene, The Arcade Fire — every member — were overtly exuberant about what they were doing. Every musician on that stage -- though particularly Win’s brother William as he jumped around the stage like a psychotic toad, tossing a hand held drum up in the air and yawping so joyously that Whittman would have grinned -- was genuinely excited about the prospect of putting on the best show they possibly could for every one of the eight thousand plus Calgarians who showed up. And in true Canadian style (though Win is American born and raised), they kept thanking us.
Is The Arcade Fire the best band I’ve ever seen live? No, I’ve seen better. But not many. And I won't ever make the mistake of missing one of their live performances again.