Last night at Montreal’s Club Salsathèque, Arcade Fire performed songs from their upcoming double album Reflektor for a crowd of 200 people. The show was announced yesterday morning when a poster for “The Reflektors” appeared under the “Parties” section of Salsathèque’s website, saying the event would take place on 9/9 at 9PM and cost $9. Formal attire or a costume was required. Cameras and cell phones were strictly banned. I headed over to see what was going on.
Hopeful attendees had started lining up outside the venue around noon. The crowd contained a mixed bag of people in suits, dresses, and all kinds of crazy costumes, with others who didn’t get the memo about the dress code. Rumours circulated throughout the day of our outfits being “judged” before we could gain admission to the show. The bouncers periodically looked us over and gave warnings to people dressed inappropriately — no jeans, no tennis shoes, etc. — and this created a lot of anxiety among us. Some ran to H&M for a quick outfit tuneup, others called up significant others for suit pants deliveries. My favourite was this guy who had gone into the office in the morning, heard about the show, asked his boss for the rest of the day off, and scrounged together a “Mr. Reflektor” superhero outfit that he put on over his work clothes.
Things got more exciting when the band appeared in a black SUV at the end of the block and walked along the lineup to the club’s entrance. This happened twice — once around 5PM for soundcheck, and again around 7PM for the show. The first time, they showed up donning the oversized heads they had worn in the “Sprawl II” and “Reflektor” videos. Later, they came back in masks, white and red suits, and skull makeup.
In the end, no one was denied entry for his or her outfit, but there was a stylist for the event who handed out white jumpsuits to anyone who had underdressed for the occasion. Apparently, the costumes were required as part of a video shoot, although it was never clear what type of video. Later there would be a film crew recording the whole set.
Doors opened at 8:30PM and we made our way up a long staircase lined with lights, past a Salsa dancing school, and into the wonderfully disco’d out Salsathèque. The walls and ceiling were made of mirrors, there were blinking and colored lights everywhere, and an elevated light up dance floor looked exactly like the light up dance floors in every disco movie ever.
The band took the stage at 9PM wearing the costumes they had donned on the street. It was immediately clear that a few things were different about Arcade Fire. Gone was the second drum kit of their early years and the Suburbs tour. Instead, they had two additional percussionists playing a mixture of congas, timbales, wood blocks, bongos, and other instruments, adding much more rhythmic complexity and power to their sound throughout the set. There were no horn players present and Sarah Neufeld was the only devoted violinist; Owen Pallett was there, and switched between violin and keyboards. Otherwise, the band’s instrumentation consisted of guitars, drums, and synths/keys. In this way, Arcade Fire presented themselves not as barons of symphonic indie rock anthems, but as the tightest of house bands ready to provide a sweaty night of dancing tunes. That said, and as anyone should expect, their anthemic choruses still crept in between the beats.
The set was short and only contained songs from Reflektor. Here’s the setlist in as much detail as I can recall.
01 “Reflektor”: Anyone who watched the Internet on 9/9/9 knows what this song sounds like by now. It came across every bit as thumping, dark, and moody as the album cut, with the loud guitar bursts hitting especially hard and bringing an extra level of urgency that doesn’t come across over an MP3 stream. Unfortunately, this performance featured one fewer David Bowie than on the single. However, what did make the live version particularly different and interesting was the addition of a long salsa percussion jam at the beginning.
02 Unknown: Next they transitioned into to a simpler, less syncopated percussion jam, which slowly morphed into this melodic guitar and keyboard-driven tune that recalled Born In The U.S.A.-era Springsteen. Jeremy Gara and the other two percussionists provided a thick mid-tempo beat while Pallett played synths and Regine Chassagne accompanied Win Butler on a soaring and yearning lead vocal melody.
03 Unknown: This whole song was grounded by a synth bass line that sounded like the love child of “Billie Jean” and the very beginning of “Livin’ On A Prayer.” Needless to say, it was an upbeat, charging disco number, and inspired more hands-in-the-air dancing among the crowd than anything else after “Reflektor.” It was also one of the more Talking Heads-y moments of the night (that bass line sounded kind of like “Naive Melody” too, though less friendly), but it fell back on Arcade Fire’s trusty guitars for release in the chorus.
Win addresses the crowd: “We are called the Reflektors, and we are from Montreal, Quebec, Canada,” thus indicating how far they went with the whole pseudonym thing. At no point in the night did they refer to themselves as Arcade Fire.
04 Unknown: Richard Reed Parry started into a slow, bluesy guitar riff, and the band added layer after layer of slap bass, clavichord-style synth, and more guitar. It all built into a swampy, funky groove that would have felt at home on the loudest Dr. John record ever. More so than any other song they played last night, it was hard to picture how this one would sound on record, since it worked perfectly as an in-concert jam and pace setter but didn’t have a clear structure.
Win: “We haven’t played together in a while, so thanks for being so into this.”
05 Unknown: Everything up until now had been pretty awesome, but the next three songs totally killed and were the highlight of the night. They brought another level of nuance, melody, and experimentation to the sounds we had heard so far, hinting at the possible depth of the album as a whole. This one began with a guitar line straight from the Cars and kept its promise by moving into a fun, shout-along song for driving in the sun during the year 1978. The guitars grew louder and more snarling around a four-chord progression, exploding into an awe-inspiring state of controlled chaos.
06 Unknown: They transitioned into a dark, cascading electro song, with Win and Regine’s dual lead vocals propelled forward by Gara’s rolling toms. I can’t wait to hear this one again to pick apart its layers.
07 Unknown: Whatever this was, I thought it was the best song of the night. It sounded something like New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle,” but happier, bigger, and more rhythmically nuanced. The crowd’s reaction was infectiously positive, as if everyone was shocked and elated to be hearing their new favorite song.
08 “Here Comes The Nighttime”: As Win strapped on a twelve-string acoustic guitar, he uttered the least trustworthy statement in rock: “This is our last song!” It began with a fast and energetic mariachi-style beat and transitioned suddenly into something more beachy. This seemed like a bit of a novelty tune, designed to get people dancing, but the chorus was irresistible and had everyone singing along right away.
This was when Win defied expectations and delivered on his promise to bring the show to a close, leaving the stage as the band continued playing, walking through the crowd, and taking a seat next to the sound man. My hope that he was over there discussing mix levels was dashed when the music petered out and he threw on a salsa track. The show was officially over and Win had assumed the role of DJ. Instead of going back into their dressing room, the remaining band members moved into the bar and mingled with the crowd. It seemed like their final addition to the Reflektor/dance/salsa theme was to throw a party with everyone who attended the show.
Arcade Fire’s Reflektor is out 10/29 via Merge. Pre-order here.
[Photos by Greg Bouchard/Stereogum.]