If you have a couple hours to kill, Google “Arcade Fire live reviews” and set the date range to 2003-2006. You’ll see some good writing and some average writing and you’ll realize that the Believer published a concert review at one point, but noticeably you’ll catch writing unlike the binary concert reviews we’re used to. You’ll see writers desperately attempting to make the reader feel the enormous impact of seeing a relatively new band from Canada convert them from stranger to devoted fan. And if you saw Arcade Fire during this span of time, you may not have published an article about it, but you probably told your friends with the sort of hyperbolic language we associate with stories about fish or descriptions of spiders seen in the garage.
While it’s one thing to note how people flipped over Arcade Fire out of the gate, it is easy to forget why they flipped. There were motorcycle helmets used as percussion, there were flashlights given out to the audience, and there were times when the band played in the crowd, discontent in being removed from the audience, erasing the dividing lines between them and us. In turn, Arcade Fire turned a whole lot of music listeners that can’t find common ground to save their life into “we.” If there was one thing we could all agree on, it was that Arcade Fire ruled.
Yesterday, the band that once connected to us by stepping down from the stage couldn’t have seemed further away, perched 30 feet above the crowds for what some called a bold step toward the iconic, in the name of publicity, while others, well, just saw as a stunt in the name of publicity. For their aggressive promotional tour for the release of fourth LP Reflektor, the release day festivities sounded great on paper. After turning in intimate club dates in New York, Miami, and Montreal (plus an incredible set at the Bridge School Benefit and some major media appearances on Colbert, SNL, and NPR), the group would play an intimate set on top of the Capitol Records Building in Hollywood. The event was produced by MTV Iggy and Intel’s Music Experiment 2.0 series, filmed for live stream (and Jimmy Kimmel Live) and tickets were not to be sold, but given away through they typical radio station call-ins and social media hijinks.
And everything still seemed promising upon arrival, with a heavy media presence meaning lots of familiar faces, and a significant participation on the band’s request that attendees dress in the “Be A Reflektor” theme. But the stage wasn’t on top of the Capitol Records Building, or it was, but now how anyone would think. Rather than have people on the iconic tower circular tower, the band was to play of the much shorter base of the building, about three stories above a parking lot where the fans started gathering in mass. Rather than an intimate performance, we were watching Arcade Fire with thousands of others. Add in the people viewing remotely on the internet, the “we” was surely a huge number.
If Reflektor has shown us anything, it is that the community that Arcade Fire’s music inspired is easily divided, or, more likely, was already cracked and just looking for a reason to shatter and separate. Reactions have veered to the polar, often aggressively, and so as Arcade Fire slugged their way through song after song of new material, the VIP section and the space farthest away from the stage became a bottlenecked hellhole. The nearer to the stage you got, the more fun the event seemed, with costumes more pronounced and a non-stop dance party entertaining the folks that would usually be clinging to a spot on the rail.
A 30-foot-tall stage means a considerable distance needed to actually see the show, so the show was about sacrifices, with considerably more opting to see the action in an environment devoid of much spirit. Or, you could hear the songs in a celebratory gathering, but unable to actually view the action. This dilemma would be less bothersome if Arcade Fire wasn’t both a visual spectacle and a communal, spirit event, traditionally at least.
So if a concert lacks intimacy, and the audience is disengaged, the Arcade Fire could still probably make it work, and on the most basic levels, they did, as people didn’t have a bad time. But it was their ability to surprise in concert that was most missed, the element that has has made their transition from clubs to festival headliners acceptable for all, as they can still make a massive group unite and feel worthwhile. Rumors circulated that Win might end the concert by coming down from his tower and performing in the crowd, for old time’s sake. But that wouldn’t happen, the band played essentially the same songs they have at every other show they’ve played recently, omitting two of Reflektor’s best tracks in “Porno” and “Awful Sound.” During the brief encore, after Butler joked that they’d “shut up and play the hits” — in a nod to their producer — they ended up playing just one. And then they left.
Because of the size of the stage (figuratively), there was expectation for Arcade Fire to deliver something special (the confetti was nice but not on par with Coachella’s glowing balls). An hour set of mostly new material makes sense in front of a couple hundred people, but in front of thousands it felt like, well, like free shows usually feel. Expectations are something that Arcade Fire has never struggled to exceed and people will always mistake disappointment as a fault of another, when it is really on us. Arcade Fire can’t be everything to everyone, and Reflektor would never hold up to selfish hopes and preferences. But likewise, unfulfilled expectations lose Arcade Fire the benefit of the doubt.
Maybe the band sensed this. Maybe that’s why Will Butler came down ten minutes after they finished playing and stood on the street taking pictures with fans. They needed to do something for the fans, because the event never felt like it was for the crowd. It was for TV, for the Internet, for the sponsors, and for the band. And a handful of people that recognized a band member got their memory, a story to take home from the event. Probably the least amount of satisfied customers at an Arcade Fire show ever.
“It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)”
“You Already Know”
“Here Comes the Night Time”
“Supersymmetry” (with Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” outro)
“Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
“Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)”