I saw Arcade Fire back in May 2007, the last time they came to Portland, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The venue was perfect, the sound was perfect and the band kept the audience engaged with almost every note. It was one of those magical nights that you always hope for but never can expect.
I saw the band again in September of that year, on the same tour, at the Hollywood Bowl. While I liked the show at the Hollywood Bowl, something got lost as it scaled to the big venue. Somehow the intimacy and magic present at the Schnitz was completely absent at the Hollywood Bowl.
Flash forward three years and Arcade Fire is simply on fire. They went from one of the biggest buzz bands around to one of the top bands performing. For The Suburbs tour, this necessitated a move to bigger venues and larger arenas for their shows.
Acutely aware of the issues with scaling their shows, Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara admitted to fears to NME that the band wouldn’t “connect” with fans when they play big arenas. This combined with the fact that the Portland stop on their tour was booked at the Memorial Coliseum made me a little hesitant about seeing their show. The Coliseum isn’t Portland’s best venue (the best happens to be the Schnitzer) and it can really have significant acoustical problems.
Given how good the band was the last time around and how good their new album “The Suburbs” is, I decided I absolutely had to give it a try.
As the staging was unveiled it lacked the huge LED High Def screens common on most arena tours. Instead there was a modest square video screen backed by an expansive mural depicting the concrete overpasses associated with urban sprawl.
From the opening note of the show, which was appropriately enough the song Ready To Start, it was clear that Arcade Fire had left any of their concerns about connecting with the audience behind. Performed live, Ready To Start really captured the best of Arcade Fire and showed that they have clearly matured from a band unable to handle big arenas to one that could easily master them.
Ready To Start was followed by Month of May which took this very strong opening and built on it. Month of May has some strong rock and punk elements to it and it showcases Arcade Fire’s range. Following this up with Neighborhood #2 (Laika) really highlighted the punk and indie aspects of the song and showed a nice congruity between Funeral, the band’s first full album, and The Suburbs, the band’s newest album.
While the band did very little talking between the numbers, Win Butler did quickly step up to the mic between songs to comment, “It’s dangerous to come to Portland when the sun is out. It makes you think you could almost live here”.
The band continued on with a rendition of No Cars Go, which was especially good. One of the things I really liked about it was that it featured some great harmonization among the members of the band. The entire night these eight musicians worked as one and it really showed on this song.
Part of that unity was shown when Win Butler stepped back from the lead mic and handed it over to Régine Chassagne. While Butler is clearly exceptionally talented as a lead singer, I think his ability to step back and be part of the rest of the band is extraordinary.
With the song Haïti, Régine was slightly overwhelmed by the sound of the band; this was less due to her performance and more to the acoustics of the coliseum, one of the only points where it was an issue. The sound wasn’t an issue at all for Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) which performed live represents some of Régine’s best work. The song really comes alive. Many of the songs performed from The Suburbs worked better live in a big arena than those from Funeral or Neon Bible. The album simply scales better. However, I appreciated how the band weaved the songs from their different albums together into a singular, cohesive, emotional musical journey.
The emotional notes from Sprawl II seamlessly lead to those in Crown of Love and then onto Modern Man, which is one of my favorite Arcade Fire songs performed live. Modern Man showed off everything that’s really matured with Arcade Fire including their confidence in their sound and their ability to perform their songs live. It’s one of their more laid back songs but I think that comes from a real trust in their material, the band, and their sound.
If Modern Man was a highlight musically, Rococo validated the band’s decision on their stage show. At the start of the concert I really wondered if they had underdone the video and light support, but with Rococo all the elements came together in a hauntingly brilliant performance. Rococo was performed with pitch-perfect emotional intensity combined with fantastic lighting and video mixing both on the center screen and on the backdrop. You simply couldn’t ask for more. This song was the absolute highlight of the evening.
From there the show continued with the title track from The Suburbs, which again had the band coming together as a whole. Seamlessly transitioning from album to album, The Suburbs was followed by Ocean of Noise which featured fantastic play with levels of sound. At one point the room was almost silent with Win Butler quietly singing some lyrics, which built to a huge crescendo which had two members from the opening band, Calexico, playing bright, loud trumpet.
From loud and high, the mood dipped low with the start of Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) only to build back up. As with the show back in 2007, the audience followed every single note. It was clear that Arcade Fire has mastered the ability to take what was special and magical in a small venue and bring it to a big arena show. This fact was so apparent that Win Butler took the mic and said, “We used to feel funny about playing big rooms but now we’re really happy that everyone who wants to see us can see us”. It was a triumphant declaration given their pre-tour intrepidation.
This was followed by Intervention, which picked up the emotional theme of the evening and delivered it to We Used To Wait, which sort of felt like a thematic finale. The online video from We Used to Wait is one of the most amazing videos I’ve ever experienced and I was disappointed that Arcade Fire didn’t integrate elements from the video into the live performance of the show. During the video the viewer gets a chance to write a note, and there was a sense that some of these notes would be used during the concert, but they weren’t. Having said all that, the band’s performance of the song was simply incredible. Win Butler and company are the real deal and, upon hearing We Used To Wait, I was aware that I was listening to the kind of band which will be reflected back on for years and years to come.
With We Used to Wait wrapping up some of the emotional themes from The Suburbs, what followed was a mini greatest hits with Neighborhood #3 (Power Out). If you ever had doubts about Arcade Fire being able to play an arena show, the performance of Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) would quickly put that to rest.
The finale of the evening was Rebellion (Lies) which was a massive exclamation point to the show.
Arcade Fire came back for an encore with Keep the Car Running, which had the band going all out, and Wake Up, which had the entire crowd singing along.
There have been many times in my life where I’ve shied away from seeing an amazing band in an arena tour after seeing them perform an amazing small venue show. Arcade Fire is one of those rare bands that is able to capture the magic of a small venue show and combine it with the magic of an arena show. They bring such amazing musical craftsmanship, band unity and emotional intensity to their work that their shows are simply not to be missed.
I almost made the mistakte of missing Arcade Fire because I worried about bad acoustics and the possibility that they wouldn’t be able to scale. I’ll never make that mistake again. The next time Arcade Fire comes around, no matter where they play, I’ll be there.
Arcade Fire Performed at the Portland Memorial Coliseum on September 30th, 2010. Here is the complete set list.
Here are the full images of Arcade Fire by Lee Barth: