By Mark Guarino
What do indie rockers learn when they attend Bulls games?
You must sit down. Win Butler of the Arcade Fire learned that strange little lesson at the Bulls game Thursday. He reported observing security telling three fans they were not allowed stand up and must contain their excitement by staying put in their seats.
“Moral of the story? There is no God,” he said.
If you can’t shoot to your feet a basketball game, where can you? At an Arcade Fire concert, apparently. Butler knows quite a bit about holy revelry since that is exactly what he raised Friday at the Chicago Theatre, the first of three sold-out nights the Arcade Fire played this weekend. (The third and final show is tonight.). For the nearly 80-minute show, the capacity crowd remained on their feet, an unspoken requirement for watching this Montreal band, committed to making music that combines spiritual fervor and chaotic spectacle.
The Arcade Fire seemed to come out of nowhere three years ago when Internet buzz and favorable press boosted their debut album to become a bestseller and sleeper hit. “Neon Bible” (Merge), is the long-awaited follow-up. Released earlier this year, the album brings stronger songcraft to their cacophonous sound. Certainly there was a lot going on during their performance — this version of the Arcade Fire included ten musicians, several keyboards, horns, megaphones, a hurdy gurdy, fiddles and one church organ, with 16 pipes looming above — but the real star were the band’s terrific new songs. They started small but grew with exuberance. This partially came from Butler’s musings on big themes, like apocalyptic fear and the need for transcendence. On “(Antichrist Television Blues),” the band created chilling moments as Butler, singing with a quiver that, up to now, was the hallmark of only David Byrne, sang from the perspective of someone watching the world crumble on his television screen. The jerky strums on his acoustic guitar led to an entire chorus ringing behind him, a poppy beat insisting it never stop. It was chilling.
The show was designed to emulate the spontaneous passions of a church revival. Songs asked for audience to join in, which they did. Bandmembers continuously swapped instruments, not out of necessity but out of community. The best songs were the ones that sounded universal, small but mighty productions like “Windowsill” made accessible through the simple melodies stretched on an epic scale.
The strength of the Arcade Fire’s live show weakened when the band took on more than it needed. About 30 percent of the onstage equipment was there just for the visual impact and made song transitions unnecessarily messy and long. When bandmembers, supposedly possessed by so much rocking, threw microphone stands at each other, hit everything in sight with drumsticks or — in one instance — tore pages out of a book, the chaos looked not just well rehearsed but also very stupid. Like a sitcom that uses a laugh track to tell viewers when to chuckle, music this mighty didn’t need the cues.