Editor’s note: This article was originally published April 11, 2014
If there was any question that Arcade Fire’s transition into an arena rock act had tamed the band’s radical DIY art-rock aesthetic it was answered the minute the band took the stage shortly after 9 p.m. on Thursday, in the first headline performance of the 2014 season for the Austin360 Amphitheater. Amongst the musicians wandered a chaotic group of suited figures with giant bobbleheads one of whom wore the obvious likeness of President Barack Obama. Bobble-Obama interacted with another suit with a boxed TV head projecting the face of Texas Governor Rick Perry. The two welcomed the crowd to the show. Then lead singer Win Butler, who grew up in Houston, led the band and the crowd in a brief rendition of "Deep In the Heart of Texas" that gave way to a cacophony of motion and noise from which the track "Normal Person" off the band’s ambitious 2013 release "Reflektor" emerged.
From there the band launched into a sprawling 90 minute set that drew heavily from the newest release but also spanned through highlights from the group’s career. It was a fantastic demonstration of versatility and adventurous composition. At times, the ten-piece anchored by Butler and his wife, incredible multi-instrumentalist and singer Régine Chassagne, was propelled by a percussive assault staged on multiple fronts with drummer Jeremy Gara taking assists from two touring percussionists and Chassagne who took turns on congas, xylophone, a compact drum kit and steel drums. At other points in the set the group’s powerful choral vocals and textural strings and brass defined the mood.
The band occasionally veered a little too far into the artsy aspect of art rock. A jagged and very literal rendition of the latest album’s title track early on found Chassagne using mirrors to reflect beams of light into the audience. For the most part, however the band’s willingness to follow their own muse through uncharted sonic territory light years away from formulaic radio rock shone through as an asset.
Butler made light of the band’s unconventional approach, remarking that the band has so many hit singles he struggles to keep them straight. "Oh wait, I forgot, we have zero hit singles," he joked. Be that as it may, there’s something refreshing about an immensely successful act that makes no attempt to aim for the lowest common denominator.
From the stage Butler also warmly expressed his love for Austin, talked about the band’s efforts to help Haiti, the country from which Chassagne’s parents emigrated, and championed gay rights while introducing the song "We Exist" a tribute to the courage of gay youths.
The show steadily built and as the band rounded into the homestretch featuring a series of tracks spotlighting Chassagne they brought such fire even the folks on the lawn who were soaked by a sprinkler malfunction early in the evening must have been feeling the heat. On "It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)" Chassagne took a stance in the middle of the seat banks acting out the songs call-and-response section with Butler across the crowd. From there she segued into a silky rendition of Blondie’s "Heart of Glass" before the band took the show out with an expansive version of "Sprawl II."
The band exited for just moments before returning for a breathtaking encore. They started with a cover of Prince’s "Controversy" with Butler singing leads from beneath a Pope bobblehead, then they moved into an epic rendition of "Here Comes the Night Time" that built into a fantastic climax which found explosions of colored streamers shooting through the crowd while gusts of confetti swirled from the stage filling the air above the arena with a magical technicolor snow globe effect. It was a magical moment that seemed impossible to top, but the band moved into their seminal hit "Wake Up" leading an arena of thousands in a full-throated chorus before switching to acoustic and taking the show out with a brassy, street band style march through the crowd that culminated in a ground level jam that stretched on for ages.
As the crowd, comprised primarily of twenty-somethings, many of whom wore elaborate costumes, from glittery prom dresses and gold lamét pants to gorilla suits, streamed out of the amphitheater one thing was abundantly clear. If Arcade Fire is this generation’s version of arena rock we can rest assured that the future will turn out just fine.
(Read our review of the Phi Slamma Jamma Arcade Fire aftershow at the Continental Club.)