Because they’re often positioned as an alternative to pop superstars, indie bands generally flourish in the nightclub realm, perhaps graduating to small theaters or midsize concert halls as their careers progress. Arena shows tend to be out of reach, and not a good fit aesthetically anyway.
Grammy-winning Montreal band the Arcade Fire is an exception, the rare indie act that seems to be specifically designed for nothing smaller than the arena environment. A six-piece core outfit that tours with three additional musicians, they’re all about pushing every element of live performance to the limit, from theatrical stage presence to a dazzling light show to bombastic bursts of sound.
READ MORE: Our 2014 interview with Arcade Fire bassist Tim Kingsbury
And so, even though the Erwin Center was nowhere near capacity for the group’s Wednesday night concert — the upper level went unsold and was blocked off — this was still the right room for their current “Infinite Content” tour. The key was booking a space that allowed them to set the stage in the middle of the room so that they could be surrounded by the audience, rather than projecting in a single direction.
Such in-the-round concerts happen every once in a while at the Erwin Center — George Strait used that format for his sold-out farewell tour in 2014 — but the Arcade Fire’s stage setup was rather ingenious. Built as a giant square with ropes on all four sides, it was basically a boxing ring, with band members performing around the edges and the drums rotating on a round riser in the middle.
Co-leader Win Butler had the most freedom to roam the ring, frequently perching himself atop small platforms placed around the ring as he played guitar or bass and occasionally taking a seat to play piano. But nearly everyone made full use of the space, moving peripatetically from edge to edge in a manner that couldn’t be described in typical stage left/right fashion: There’s co-leader Regine Chassagne slinging a keytar at the 3 o’clock position, there’s Will Butler (Win’s younger brother) wailing on keyboards at 7 o’clock, there’s gold-jacketed Richard Reed Parry strumming a guitar at 10 o’clock, here comes touring member Stuart Bogie thrusting a saxophone over his head at 5 0’clock.
Many of them changed instruments as often as they changed positions, with violinist Sarah Neufeld a rare member who stuck to a single strength. Her contributions were important to a band that often puts forth a gorgeously melodic wall of sound, though at times they veered deep into more rhythm-centered tunes, especially when Chassagne took a lead vocal with a headset mic that allowed for ease of mobility.
Butler occasionally conversed with the crowd, cajoling them to sing along on the “whoa-oh-oh”-type chants that appear in many of the band’s songs. Though they played the Austin360 Amphitheater on their last visit to Austin in 2014, Butler made reference to the group’s very first gig in Austin, at Emo’s in 2005. Raised in the Woodlands near Houston, Butler also gave a shout-out of solidarity with hurricane victims both there and in the Caribbean, as Chassagne’s parents are natives of Haiti.
The one downside to the band’s impressive, all-out sensory assault is that the senses inevitably get dulled a bit to it as the show wears on. As they got into the second half of their two-hour show, the songs that stood out were more often quieter moments where the spectacle element was scaled back a bit, including the title track to 2007’s “Neon Bible” and the encore-opening “We Don’t Deserve Love” from this summer’s “Everything Now” (the band’s fifth studio album).
Even without the upper deck in use, the Erwin Center felt plenty crowded, in large part because floor space was sold as general-admission standing room, allowing fans who wanted to be up close to surround the stage on all four sides. That also allowed for some occasional crowd interaction, such as when one member carrying a handheld drum bounced himself repeatedly against the ringside rungs, playing rope-a-dope until he finally broke through and went for a short stroll among the fans. And when the show was over, the band descended down a staircase and walked through the crowd back to the south-end exit point to the backstage area.
Fellow Montreal indie-rockers Wolf Parade opened the show, playing stationary toward the north end of the crowd (before the stage was configured in the boxing-ring setup). Recently reunited after a five-year hiatus, the group mixed songs from its previous three albums as well as previewing a few from “Cry Cry Cry,” due out next week on Sub Pop Records. Songs sung by keyboardist Spencer Krug generally fared better than those with guitarist Dan Boeckner out front, but the crowd responded favorably throughout the quartet’s 45-minute set, which would’ve sounded quite at home alongside the music of Austin indie kingpins Spoon. (Indeed, Boeckner and Spoon’s Britt Daniel played together in the side-project group Divine Fits a few years ago.)
1. Everything Now
2. Signs of Life
3. Rebellion (Lies)
4. Here Comes the Night Time
6. Keep the Car Running
7. No Cars Go
8. Electric Blue
9. Put Your Money on Me
10. Neon Bible
11. My Body Is a Cage
12. Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
13. The Suburbs
14. The Suburbs (Continued)
15. Ready to Start
16. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
19. Creature Comford
20. We Don’t Deserve Love
21. Everything Now (Continued)
22. Wake Up