Arcade Fire at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 4/9/2014
I may not be the first person to say it, but then Arcade Fire is not the first group to counter the "most important band in the world" tag by breaking out the costumes and mirrors. U2 is the obvious model, with their Joshua Tree-Achtung Baby-Zooropa cycle, but the tradition is at least as old as their fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde, and no doubt a lot older. "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person," the 19th-century wit famously said. "Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."
Arcade Fire's latest album, Reflektor, is clouded with suspicion and anxiety. It's the kind of record a band who has conquered the world and is wondering both who they can trust and what to do next might make, but it's so full of shiny surfaces, synthesizer-spawned smoke and mirrors, and a relentless Studio 54 beat that you'd almost never notice. The camera never lies, and there is always redemption on the dance floor. Not their best record, maybe, but maybe the one that translates best to the stage.
But Wednesday night at the Pavilion, the outsize Montreal group with deep roots in The Woodlands had just come from playing Lollapalooza in Brazil, so maybe they were in a festive mood anyway. Decked out in costumes loosely inspired by Day of the Dead and legendary NashVegas clothier Jaime Nudie -- such as the striking neon-pink fringe on co-founder Regine Chassagne's black dress -- Arcade Fire came off like a band that might be a little tired of talking in their own collective person and was ready to put on some masks for a while. The violinist sawing away in a full-blown lucha libre special was an especially nice touch.
Thing is, though, it's still Arcade Fire. Some bands build songs out of a handful of chord changes, but Arcade Fire prefers to start with a simple musical figure -- a rhythm, a riff, a two- or three-note bass line -- and compound it to the Nth degree. On the intensity scale, they tend to start at "up" and finish somewhere in the stratosphere. The remarkable thing is how so many people onstage playing so many different instruments (as many as 12 Wednesday...I think) all plug into the same circuit, like little creeks feeding into a raging river.
For example, during "Ready to Start," which came midway through the band's 100-minute performance, this was going on onstage, left to right: keyboards, guitar, congas, cowbell, Chassagne on drums, co-founder Win Butler on vocals and guitar, another set of drums, guitar, Win's brother Will playing two or three keyboards at once (it was hard to tell), and that luchador violinist. Even with the masks on, it's almost impossible for Arcade Fire to disguise who they are as a band -- one that bets the house on each song.
And mind you, that is a baseline Arcade Fire song. That same formula of lots of instruments, one enormous wall of sound held true (more or less) through the bulk of the evening, especially songs from 2004 breakthrough album Funeral like "Neighborhood 3 (Power Out)," "Rebellion (Lies)" and "Neighborhood 2 (Laika)." Those songs are cathartic, and absolutely were Wednesday, but they're also a little exhausting, especially right on top of each other.
The only real break in the action Wednesday came six songs in, when Win Butler sidled up to an upright piano to sing the wistful "The Suburbs," the closest thing to a country tune Arcade Fire has in its catalog, and an effective island of calm amid all the Statement Rock and now Dance Mania. Wish there was a little more of that, really.
But make no mistake, adding elements of '70s music (disco, yes, but just as much the work of German groups like Can or Kraftwerk) was a smart move for the band. It made the newer songs like "Flashbulb Eyes," "Joan of Arc" and "Afterlife" even more interesting by adding deeper shadows and sharp angles to go with all the electronic bells and whistles.
Review continues on the next page.