Fans and critics have not been infinitely content with their latest antics, but Arcade Fire showed they still know how to connect
ARCADE FIRE with BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE at the Air Canada Centre, Friday, November 3. Rating: NNNN
For the first time in their career, Arcade Fire are facing serious backlash.
Some has always been lurking – related to their earnestness, cultural appropriation or clumsy foray into trans advocacy – but it’s been buoyed by a sense that they are coming from a place of empathy, trying hard to do good and stumbling along the way.
On the cycle for their fifth album, Everything Now, that’s started to change.
The Montreal band’s appeal has always been their emotional openness. That’s what’s carried them from indie rock to disco, funk, new wave, reggae and kompa without disruption, and made their transition from small-venue DIY band to arena rock relatively smooth. Their meditations on Big Topics like aging, grief and ennui have never felt distancing because their fans have been invited into the collective top-of-your-lungs, smash-the-nearest-drum catharsis.
With Everything Now, their connection hasn’t always been connecting. By refashioning themselves as 21st-century media critics and entry-level culture jammers – especially in their ill-advised album launch campaign that included band-created fake news, self-written album reviews, ironically overpriced merch and exclusionary dress codes – they’ve started to seem more condescending than welcoming.
That’s a dangerous position for a band that started at venues like Sneaky Dee’s and now play the Air Canada Centre. Fans don’t want to feel like they’re being spoken down to from atop an arena stage, especially by the underdogs we used to root for.
So it came as a relief that the first of two Arcade Fire shows Friday at the ACC on their Infinite Content tour felt like a reassertion of their original charm. Playing “in the round” with a stage in the middle of the floor, surrounded by fans and facing all directions, the band once again acted as a conduit to a big, warm, fuzzy emotional release.
They brought along Toronto indie rock heroes Broken Social Scene to open. Unfortunately, what should’ve been a meeting of 00s indie rock bands earning big-stage accolades felt more like a traditional opener-headliner situation. Which is to say, BSS played to a lot of empty seats.
If ever there’s a band that could warrant a 360-degree stage, it’s Broken Social Scene. Anywhere between seven and 10 people were onstage at any given time, including Leslie Feist. The nine-song set leaned as heavily on their last-decade discography as their new reunion record, Hug Of Thunder – fitting, considering they and Arcade Fire first met at Montreal’s considerably smaller La Sala Rossa in 2002, as Win Butler later pointed out.
The set showcased their casual grandeur, especially during 2010’s Meet Me In The Basement, dedicated to the late Gord Downie (a regular late-career collaborator of BSS co-leader Kevin Drew). They stretched out the crescendoing riff of guitars, horns and drums and let it repeat as Drew instructed the crowd, with typical profound-sounding gibberish, to “make sure you put this in your back pocket.”
Broken Social Scene still feel ramshackle, like they’re aiming high and barely reaching the goal post, like things could fall apart at any minute but don’t. The once comparable Arcade Fire, on the other hand, have become undeniable rock stars in the classic sense.
Where the members of BSS looked like anyone feeding the jukebox on a weeknight at Communist’s Daughter (with the exception of Ariel Engle and Feist in an eye-catching jumpsuits), Arcade Fire coordinated in matching Everything Now-branded gear. While BSS seemed crowded onstage with their mess of cables, pedals and singers dancing with tambourines, Arcade Fire’s nine performers (including a pair of dancers) looked comfortable. They didn’t crowd the stage – they filled it.
A “Chemistry Kiss Cam” entertained people between sets, while a visual aesthetic inspired by old K-tel infomercials “advertised” both Everything Now and Arcade Fire fidget spinners (still?). The band got a boxing-style introduction and entered through the crowd, which had totally filled out by then, and onto a stage outfitted with boxing-ring-style ropes. Meanwhile, a late-set performance of Everything Now song Put Your Money On Me featured an onscreen money-counter with a total sum ascending throughout the song.
Those big-stage antics could easily seem pretentious, but the band’s ironic deconstruction of modern music spectacle felt more gentle and self-deprecating here, like we were in on the joke rather than the butt of it, even if the joke was sometimes kind of cheesy.
Newer songs that have been criticized for falling flat on record sounded huge. Signs Of Life, which many people dragged for Win’s speak-singing “rapping,” earned wide-scale crowd participation with its clap-along beat (aided, Jock Jams-style, with a pair of clapping hands on the Jumbotron). The bouncy Creature Comfort, with its controversial line about an Arcade Fire fan attempting suicide while listening to their first record, deserved its penultimate slot in their first set. Régine Chassagne-sung Electric Blue had a monstrous Talking Heads-fashioned groove, a fitting companion to the perennial highlight Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains). She played bottles with spoons for slow song We Don’t Deserve Love, and it absolutely, weirdly worked.
Those songs felt warmer when played alongside older anthems like No Cars Go and the primal yearn of Wake Up, with their gigantic “whoa-oh” choruses that don’t so much request sing-alongs as demand them.
Although it felt like the band was speeding through 2004’s Rebellion (Lies), Will Butler’s old trick of standing on a platform and beating a drum with all his might was just as sincere and contagious as it was at Sneaky Dee’s, and Win looked like he was still singing himself hoarse. Their exuberance hasn’t worn off.
They exited through the audience, pied-pipering their way out with horns and tambourines like a New Orleans marching band.
Everything Now might be looked back at as Arcade Fire’s awkward transitional phase, but, as this show reaffirmed, they’re going to be an arena band for a long while yet.
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Check out more photos of Broken Social Scene below:
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