The Agit Reader

Arcade Fire
Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, September 17

September 27th, 2017  |  by Brian O'Neill

Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire (pictured above) has been an unlikely success story for some time now, but it’s still an interesting and fairly unprecedented rise to headlining basketball emporiums for the group. (They likely think of arenas as hockey sheds.) Even the critical indifference to the band’s two most recent releases has done little to dampen the enthusiasm of a following whose size at Wells Fargo Center was rivaled only by its diversity.

The same ethos that allows the band to draw in fans of all ages and a nearly equal divide along gender lines also permits the group to have the likes of The Preservation Hall Jazz Band support. The New Orleans mainstay is no stranger to Arcade Fire as the two groups have played together from time to time since they collaborated to close Coachella in 2014 and subsequently teamed up for a handful of Bowie tributes. Playing in the round meant the group—all seven members—had to be ushered through the still-arriving crowd. This seemed like a missed opportunity. Maybe the PHJB not being mic’d up was the cause, but given how cool a New Orleans parade is, it sure would have been fun to watch the Saints go marching in.

It’s fair to question why the indie rock band that could is not doing more to help other young groups who could use a tour in front of the people Arcade Fire bring out. Throw The Mountain Goats or labelmates The Clientele a bone, or a tenured influence who never got their due such as The Feelies are deserving. Fortunately, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band riled up the venue way better than any indie rockers might have. It was loud, upbeat, and man did it swing. The rollicking set was an organic, authentic way to warm a crowd to a headliner that as of late has started to become self-conscious to a fault.

Arcade Fire still seems to be grappling with how to handle the expectations of big crowds. This was evidenced by strange pep-talks during the changeover on the big screens by someone with a vaguely country accent, whose face was replaced with blurry purple and red splotches like a champagne supernova or something. He alternately skirted copyright law (“I’m not legally allowed to tell you to get ready to rumble…”) and hawked band merch.

The stage was Spartan save for a phalanx of instruments – horns, two drum kits, violins, a couple keyboard banks and at least half a dozen guitars – and tape around the stage giving the appearance of a boxing ring. I would have pegged the Canadian group as too polite for pugilism, but they should have completed the effect by having a microphone drop into the center of the ring.

While there was no microphone drop, the band’s entrance was a huge spectacle right out of a Rocky sequel with a cheeky announcer making like Grammys and Juno awards were title fights and similarly hyperbolic verbiage such as “Weighing in collectively at 2,100 pounds” being displayed on the giant screens above the stage. Those crazy Canucks.

The band took advantage of performing surrounded by the audience in other ways aside from the feigned fisticuffs. The center of the stage rotated with members taking turns on the ride. Cameras were placed at unexpected angles, creating odd collages of the various band members on the screens. The effect was exacerbated when multi-colored filters and juxtaposed spacescapes turned it into a psychedelic slideshow modernized for millennial consumption.

Fans held aloft lit cell phones during “Neon Bible” as if on command. I couldn’t find an edict from the band requesting this bit of audience participation (and after a silly dress code snafu for an earlier Brooklyn release show, they surely wouldn’t have risked more backlash making demands on attendees). It seems the crowd just picked up on the light-referencing lyrics and collectively became a dynamic part of the show.

The Talking Heads comparisons were natural even before David Byrne jammed with Arcade Fire last year, and in concert, they are even more obvious. Haitian dancers accompanying the group spiced up “Haiti,” a song that dates back to the band’s debut. The likes of “Here Comes the Night Life” off Reflektor and several moments from the new album were dancefloor-ready art-pop, especially Regine Chassagne’s falsetto during the pulsating disco of “Electric Blue.”

For the first song of the encore, “We Don’t Deserve Love,” Win Butler sang the opening verse and chorus walking around the general admission floor looking like a nomadic Bono. This was ironic since like U2, Arcade Fire has not always grappled with middle age very gracefully, but you didn’t see many signs of that. The feedback from the crowd was nothing but reverential and the enthusiasm was infectious.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band crowded onto the stage to join in a euphoric return to “Everything New,” which started the show nearly two hours prior, before ending the set with “Wake Up.” That’s when we finally got that parade as both bands marched through the crowd into the now-lit venue, Win’s ad-libbing the chorus into “Stand By Me” as they marched off.

Usually the lights go on after the band exits in darkness. Arcade Fire went off into the light, and the symbolism was inescapable.

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