For a moment there, it looked like Win Butler was just reciting from the Cheesy Arena Stage Banter Handbook (foreword by Paul Stanley). "This is my favorite part of the Garden, right here," he said, grinning devilishly as he towered over and genuflected towards the fans clamoring at his feet. Why's that, Win? Because they're the fiercely loyal general-admission diehards who waited in line and threw elbows for the right to sing along to "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" while making eye contact with you? "Because it's right here where Hakeem Olajuwon blocked John Starks' shot so the Rockets could beat the Knicks in the 1994 finals!" the Houston-born Butler boasted. Cue: the only booing he will hear for a very long time.
Celebrating the release of your new album with two shows at Madison Square Garden takes some chutzpah. But to risk squandering that not-insubstantial goodwill and hospitality by kicking Knicks fans when they're down? Pure swagger. Isn't that a violation of some sort of indie doctrine?
When Arcade Fire announced that they were not just playing the Garden to launch The Suburbs, but doing a full-blown tour of similar-sized venues, the buzz was, "So, they're an arena band now." But that's not entirely fair -- Arcade Fire have really always been an arena band, the only difference is that now they're actually playing arenas. From the onstage frenzy of watching seven (at least) members rapturously attack, then swap, instruments to the barely-containable songs themselves, they were bigger than any room they'd play. What's happening now is less graduation than capitulation.
Yet for all the hubbub, Arcade Fire dressed down for the occasion. Gone were the faux-military epaulets and britches (thanks for ruining everything, Coldplay), in favor of casual plaid button-downs and jeans. Notably excepted was Richard Reed Parry, who looked more like a cross between Shaun "the Flying Tomato" White and Gram Parsons than Napoleon Dynamite in his white short-sleeved quasi-Nudie suit. While there were some low-key projections on a screen over the stage, it could hardly be said that Arcade Fire packed extra bells and whistles to help smooth the transition. Which seems apt when performing The Suburbs, their long rumination on living on a cul-de-sac.
(One nice touch: The visuals accompanying the modern-communication lament "We Used to Wait" featured a letter being deliberately written out in longhand. Lotsa people tweeting about that.)
Granted, the songs from The Suburbs may be less prone to grand, sweeping gestures than those from Funeral, but opener "Ready to Start," "We Used to Wait," the two sequels "Half Light II" and "Sprawl II," and, perhaps most effectively, the pounding "Month of May," more than resonated in the nosebleeds. Still, Arcade Fire know where their crowd-pleasing bread is buttered -- the set indeed featured seven songs from Funeral versus just three from Neon Bible. (Although it was the latter's "Intervention" that provided perhaps the most unlikely crowd singalong line in MSG history: 13,000 people raising their fists and shouting "Who's gonna reset the bone?")
At times, even the larger stage looked woefully tiny for their needs -- Butler, who looks like he could traverse the arena in three strides, could get no further into the crowd than a tiny platform at the front of the stage, an attack dog straining at the leash. (Singer-violinist Owen Pallett, who, along with Spoon, also opened the show, helped swell the ranks of the onstage personnel.)
But any doubts that Arcade Fire were not born for this disappeared with "Rebellion (Lies)" and, predictably, the closing hymn "Wake Up." Traditionally, when logistically possible, Butler and company play that from somewhere within the crowd, but that's not feasible in these venues. Instead, they just seemed like they were in the middle of the room, which may be a more impressive trick.
Ready to Start
Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
No Cars Go
Half Light II (No Celebration)
Crown of Love
We Used to Wait
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
Month of May
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
Keep the Car Running
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)