Spot check: How recently have you seen Arcade Fire in concert? The Canadian critics’ darlings have been kind enough to play quite a few New York dates this year — a five-night stand at the teensy downtown Judson Memorial Church in February, still more shows at uptown’s United Palace Theater and midtown’s Radio City Music Hall in May. But somehow I’ve managed to miss all of ’em, much to my renewed chagrin each time reports of their live show’s trancendent awesomeness get out the next morning. The closest I’d come as of last week was in April at Coachella, where I caught an all-too-brief snatch of Arcade Fire’s set as I trekked across the festival grounds toward Ghostface Killah’s second-stage performance (bad call, in retrospect). Whitney Pastorek was affronted by the audience’s attitude at that show, but they seemed pretty entranced to me as I stepped gingerly over their variously splayed limbs. I was sure I’d regret not sticking around even before I finished my two-minute dash across the field.
Anyway, point is, I more than made up for all those near misses on Saturday, when I caught Arcade Fire’s headlining performance at Icahn Stadium on NYC’s Randall’s Island. I got there just in time to hear openers LCD Soundsystem, but head LCD dude James Murphy sounded exhausted on the last date of their fall tour, his vocals reduced to a sad falsetto bleat/squawk. “Our plan with the Arcade Fire is to wear them out, just to give us an edge,” Murphy cracked as several Fire men and women joined him on stage for backup duty.
Needless to say, his strategy backfired just a bit. Arcade Fire were in top form for their own set, delivering one impassioned performance after another with minimal patter to get in the way. (One deserving exception: A mid-set shout-out to Partners in Health, a truly remarkable non-profit that provides health care to the poorest parts of the world and received a portion of the night’s ticket proceeds.) The tens-of-thousands-strong crowd started singing along within seconds as they opened with “Black Mirror”; by the time the band reached the second song of the night, “Keep the Car Running,” it felt like we were in the midst of a full-blown religious experience. That probably sounds like a rock-writer cliché, and I guess it is. But so would any of the other words I can think of to describe the night’s vibe — spellbinding? Hypnotic? Rapturous? For once, the hype on these guys’ live performance is 100 percent deserved.
That’s not to say it was always fun, precisely. Arcade Fire makeemotionally intense music, and the mood got predictably gloomy attimes. Even when the band’s lyrics were at their most pained, though,the cathartic power of the music — an almost grunge guitar breakdown on”My Body is a Cage,” the towering wall o’ pipe organ on “Intervention”— continued to work its magic. The band closed out with a powerful runof songs from its 2004 debut, Funeral: “Neighborhood #1(Tunnels),” “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” and “Rebellion (Lies),” thatlast one inspiring multi-instrumentalist Will Butler to climb high onthe stage scaffolding and banging furiously on its industrial steel. Weaudience members followed suit as best we could, jumping up and down inplace and pumping our fists in unison.
When the band finally came back for a rousing encore, co-lead singerWin Butler mentioned something about this being the last time they’dplay New York for a good long while. Too bad — whenever I get to seethem again, it won’t be nearly soon enough.