Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Live Review: The Arcade Fire, The Chicago Theater, 5/18, Chicago, IL

The Arcade Fire
St. Vincent
Chicago Theater


Black Mirror
Keep The Car Running
(Antichrist Television Blues)
No Cars Go
Neighborhood #2 - Laika
Neon Bible
My Body is a Cage
The Well and The Lighthouse
Neighborhood #3 - Power Out
Rebellion (Lies)

Encore #1:
Ocean of Noise
Neighborhood #1 - Tunnels

Encore #2:
In The Backseat

I’ve been thinking a lot about televangelists, and to a greater extent, fundamentalist Christianity, lately. I don’t think that it’s necessarily because of Jerry Falwell’s death, or the fact that we have a televangelist as our current commander-in-chief. I think it’s because I’m fascinated by the fact that people like Falwell, or Pat Robertson or whoever their equivalent on the Left is (if one exists), can gain so much power and influence in society by insisting upon a truth that cannot be tangibly proved. No one is 100 percent sure that there is a God. That’s what the concept of faith is about: Trusting in a higher power, and living ethically by the rules that that power has set. The reward for that discipline, then, is happiness on a level so profound that most cannot, or possibly will not, ever understand it.

There are people of faith who have come to these conclusions based on self-reflection and rigorous study. But then there are others, like Falwell, who bullied his audience into belief by telling them that they will burn in hell for even thinking thoughts that differ from his own. Not only that, but those who question his supposed authority are dismissed and disavowed, along with those whose versions of that truth differ from the one that the religious authorities are trying to push.

Ultimately, I am saying that fundamentalism is crazy and more harmful than helpful. Groundbreaking stuff, to be sure.

And yet, there are so many well-intended people who spend almost all of their life devoted to a cause from which they will not reap the rewards from until they are dead. The question then, to me, is a simple one: Why? Why spend so much of your time fighting for a cause that absolutely no one can prove, no matter how convincing that the arguments for that cause may be?

I had these thoughts for exactly one minute before the Arcade Fire took the stage for the first of three sold-out shows at the legendary Chicago Theater. The audiences for both the band and of Falwell are more similar than perhaps either one wants to address. Both audiences are utterly devout and consume a message that is being presented with rabid fervor. And yet, one audience listens to hateful thoughts that are divisive and prey on the fears of modest, unassuming people; the other gets to hear a celebration of life, music and hope. Guess which one The Arcade Fire is.

The Arcade Fire’s first record, 2004’s Funeral, was full of a desperate, but fundamentally idealistic, yearning for answers surrounding the difficult questions of how to come to grips with loosing a loved one.

Neon Bible, this year’s follow-up, has a similar emotional template as Funerall. But this time, instead of mourning the death of a loved one, the band seems to be mourning the death of a country. Because the band’s concerns are with the world-at-large, the songs on Neon Bible feel more urgent, undoubtedly due to the fact that the stakes are higher (this is true, even when the songs are performed live). Recovering from a personal tragedy is one thing, but to have an entire nation recover from several tragedies (9/11, Katrina, The second Iraq war) is something that can test an entire generation.

What’s great about both records is that they refuse to take the easy way out in addressing grief and loss. They acknowledge the bad, instead of trying to push it off to the side or repress it. Perhaps that’s why people turn to televangelists. They offer an easy answer, and because of the fact that the Falwell’s of the world are so reassuring (yet, paradoxically, scare the shit out of their audience while comforting them).

Win Butler, and the rest of The Arcade Fire for that matter, have the stage presence and charisma of televangelists. But the band are ringleaders for hope instead of an agents of intolerance. One could say that the Arcade Fire’s performance itself was the consummate religious experience for blue-staters. That is, the show had the reverence of a church service, except the content of the service was fervently anti-dogma in the way a church service could never be.

The band began the show on an appropriately apocalyptic note, heavy on a red color scheme and walking out to a played-backwards version of “Black Mirror.” Then, as soon as the ten members of the Canadian collective walked on stage, they promptly began an ominous version of the real thing, albeit with multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry making much more noise than he did on the studio version.

That, along with the rest of band’s instrumentation, allowed “Black Mirror” to awe the audience with its sheer sonic density. The chorus took on majestic proportions at many times, with the music threatening to overwhelm the audience like a juggernaut of cathartic emotion.

With that kind of impact being made by ten people, all playing different instruments (sometimes in the same song), one might suspect that The Arcade Fire may have a hard time keeping their sound from becoming too muddled. Or to put it more bluntly, the band would have a hard time not becoming a sonic clusterfuck.

Those assumptions would be wrong.

What’s truly impressive about The Arcade Fire, other than the obviously transcendent quality of the music, is the fact that they successfully turn up every nuance of the songs to arena-rock volume and still have them properly translated. In other words, it’s both bombastic and subtle.

To make a literary allusion, The Arcade Fire is the sound of not going quietly into the night. Songs like “Keep The Car Running” (the rendition of which gave me goosebumps) and “Windowsill” examine dark and complex emotions (and are rejecting of the blind faith that authority requires), but with lyrics that keep a hopeful, empathetic perspective. It’s awfully hard not to admire the kind of idealism it takes to sing the lyric “I don’t want to work in a building downtown” (from ((antichrist television blues)) in the middle of the Chicago Loop.

That song, along with other cuts from future classics Neon Bible and Funeral, was rapturously received by the audience. The raw quiver of Win Butler’s tenor is the piercing, but reassuring, voice of reason.

More importantly, the band was the voice of acceptance. With each song, Butler and company seem to say, “Hey, I’m confused, you’re confused, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We can make our lives better without having to sacrifice ideals or cave in to dogma of any kind.” The passion that the band put forth was rewarded immensely by the audience, and that in turn, fueled the band to become even more passionate. Band members would run into each other accidentally, use each other as instruments, and sing at the top of their lungs, even if they weren’t mic’ed. Even when stripped down (relatively speaking), the Arcade Fire’s live sound has a life-affirming quality that the hugest sounding of rock bands could never approximate.

I guess that what it comes down to is that fundamentalists refuse to acknowledge the existence of doubt and uncertainty, let alone try to address it in a constructive manner. A group like The Arcade Fire, however, perhaps acknowledges doubt and uncertainty a bit too much. But at least they are trying to turn that confusion into something constructive, not destructive – music. Music at its best is a reassuring best friend, and the performance that The Arcade Fire gave last Friday was the greatest comfort that a human being could get.

That’s why The Arcade Fire is the greatest live band playing music today.

Oh yeah, and I got my picture taken with Win Butler.

(Photo taken by Autumn Notter)

(Jonathan Graef)

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Anonymous April said...

Excellent piece, Jon.

6:20 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

best post 2007

6:24 PM  
Anonymous Adam said...

well put.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

Thank you all for your compliments!

10:58 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

Hey, I came across this post somehow through The Hype Machine. I really enjoyed reading it, and it struck me how you had some of the same thoughts that I did when seeing The Arcade Fire perform in DC. I wrote about it here, if you're interested: http://fuzzyamy.livejournal.com/271680.html

7:15 AM  

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