By Shanna Farrell
The Talking Heads. Modest Mouse. Arcade Fire. These are three of my favorite bands. These are the only three bands I would not mind watching play a practically identical show two nights in a row. Last week, at Madison Square Garden, I got to experience this with Arcade Fire.
Did I start off on the wrong foot? Let me back up. I caught the Arcade Fire train after it had pulled out of the station. I only really got into them about two years ago (I went on a little musical hiatus awhile back and refused to listen to anything new). Many of my friends have seen them live before this current tour, but I hadn’t. When I found out they were touring in support of The Suburbs, I was ecstatic. Though I am not a huge fan of stadium shows, I bought my ticket for their first night at MSG during a pre-sale. Those tickets sold out quickly, and the band decided to add a second date that would be broadcast live. As I mentioned, I ended up in attendance for both of these shows.
Both nights began with Owen Pallet, formerly of Arcade Fire, playing a captivating set on his violin. I grew up playing the violin and worked at a high-end fine instrument auction house (price some good violins on eBay to get an idea), but I hadn't heard anything like this, especially live. He was humble, humorous and engaging. After Pallet, Spoon took the stage. This was my first time seeing Spoon live, and they put on a solid show both nights. I don’t have much more to say about Spoon …
After Spoon’s set was over, crew members crawled all over the stage preparing for Arcade Fire’s production. A floor-to-ceiling screen was revealed directly behind the stage. In front of this screen, another projection screen was in place, resembling the size and shape that of a football scoreboard. A double riser was erected as an elevated platform for two drum kits, a drum machine, a piano, and a keyboard. This was one of the most elaborate scenes I have witnessed.
As the lights lowered, a low rumble began and the crowd exploded in cheers and applause. Led by Regine Chassagne, the members of Arcade Fire took the stage. The nine performers opened their set with “Ready to Start”, appropriately. The room was on fire and the band was on. Chassagne won my “Rock Star of the Night” award for her energy and her musical chops. She bounced around the stage from instrument to instrument, never missing a beat. Much to the rest of the band’s credit, most of them also switched instruments throughtout the show. The two drum kits were used frequently and were electrifying. During “Rebellion”, the keyboardist grabbed a snare drum, took to the front of the stage, and started beating in time. He broke his stick but kept thumping the snare with the flat of his palm. Also during “Rebellion”, I knew that I had to be at their second show.
The first night, Win Butler stayed put on the stage. He spoke little, but when he did, he was met with full support. He mentioned Partners in Health, a medical organization founded by Paul Farmer who has clinic in real Haiti. (Sidenote: This organization really is incredible. I read one of Paul Farmer’s books a year ago and it was fantastic.) He also managed to make the entire crowd “boo," and me laugh. He pointed out his favorite place in the general admission pit, citing that this was the spot were Kareem Abdul Jabar blocked a shot that caused the Houston Rockets to win the playoffs against The Knicks. Needless to say, New Yorkers were none too pleased to hear this shoutout, but I thought it was funny. I was also impressed by the “boos” he received. They played for three hours and ended with a three song encore, “Tunnels”, “Mountains Beyond Mountains”, and “Wake Up”. It was one of the best shows I have been privy to.
I managed to “wrangle” a ticket and had high hopes for the second night. I wanted them to play “Neon Bible” and “Lenin”, but was in for a surprise- they played the very same songs as the night before save one. And in the same order. The camera was on them and they were working hard. It became clear that the first night was practice and the show didn’t have the same ease and effortlessness the previous show had. There was a camera rig floating over the general admission pit and technical difficulties, resulting in “Mountains Beyond Mountains” to be cut off and then played from the top. At one point, Butler jumped to the seated side of the stage and precariously walked on a handrail. He also walked through the crowd once and fell into the pit while playing his guitar several times. At the very end, confetti rained down on the crowd. While there were hundreds of people packed into MSG, it was not sold out, as the night before had been. Though it was a great show, I left feeling slightly disappointed. I wanted something that they did not give me. Just because the production value was higher during round two, it was not necessarily better.
All that said, those two nights provided some of the best music I have heard in a really long time. Arcade Fire is a band for the ages folks, and if you get a chance to see them live, take it.