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Arcade Fire - Notman House, June 4, 2010.
You could hear them through the walls. We waited, stooped on the steps of the Notman House, and you could hear the unmistakable call of the band inside, soundchecking, rehearsing, throwing full fists of guitar-chords. As the sky left wet pinpricks on our arms, I imagined a thousand people assembling in the street, squeaking to a stop on their bikes, hearing that wild noise through the walls and knowing: they're back.
Arcade Fire had not played in Montreal for three years. Now, before releasing their third album, before touring festivals and arenas, they were playing a small room to a very small crowd. It was not a "secret" show; it was a private one, a warm-up for Monday's warm-up. And although it was an open secret that Arcade Fire had been practicing for weeks around the corner from my house, at the Ukrainian Federation, I don't know that any of us had heard a note. For The Suburbs, they were laying low. And then someone pulled open the door of this dusty, crumbling mansion, and fifty of us slipped inside.
In the Notman House living-room, they played twelve songs. They stood on a ragged carpet, sweating. Christmas lights were braided over amps, keyboards, guitar-stands. It was like I was back in 2002, watching my favourite band play at a party for Concordia grad students. This time, their instruments were new, polished, rare; the crowd concealed tattooed crew-members and a flotilla of photographers; the group were veterans and stars, and I was jaded. But as Arcade Fire fired into their second song, an incredible number called "Ready To Start", I discovered something I had not expected: the eight-piece I had loved and loved and loved were once again my favourite band.
They wore denim, plaid, haircuts shaggy or close-shaved, like junior-high ca. 1994. Régine, Richard, Sarah and Will played with all the unrestrained joy they always have, wide-mouth singing. Tim and Jeremy were proud soldiers. Win looked older, sang better; he stared at us with a doomed gaze, weary and smoldering. Yet this is not the same band who made Funeral or Neon Bible; Arcade Fire seem sharper now, tighter. There are no drama club histrionics. They are not over-serious; they are simply serious. Their hooks and handclaps are underlined by noise, feedback, thundering four-axe attacks. They no longer sound anything like their imitators, and if once they evoked Bruce Springsteen, U2 or the Talking Heads, on Friday I heard the Clash, New Order, Clues and Big Star.
They played eight new songs. At home, I had been warming slowly to "The Suburbs" and "Month of May", listening to them spin on my turntable, ever so slightly warped. Live, both were better. "The Suburbs" crackled with tension, dread rising up in violin, viola and synths. There was a similar feeling to "Modern Man" and "Suburban War" - tunes that seemed both desperately lost and very precise. They felt different than what Arcade Fire has done before: measured, simple, but still tightly coiled. Like the work of Spoon: a song as it is, tempered until it's more than it is. Nothing unnecessary, no loose flames. Win sang like he was made of straw.
It was a different story on "Empty Room" (I think that's its name), a howling rocker with Régine singing lead. And "Rococo" is a delicious maze of a pop song, with the title as its chorus. "Rococo rococo / rococo rococo." Win sings it like it's a death sentence; but around him, behind him, the band make it baroque and birdsong. My favourite was either this or "Ready to Start", a hit in the making; noisy, electric-charged, built on bass riffs and handclaps.
Songs like "Tunnels" and "Power Out" sounded as good as they ever have (and "Keep the Car Running" sounded better). "Wake Up" seemed angrier. But the new songs were so strong that I didn't crave the old; I was almost disappointed to hear "Wake Up" as the encore. Lyrically, the new ones felt like brothers and sisters: suburbia is an extension of Neon Bible's downtown ennui. Win is still asking questions about purity and purpose, but whereas the last album aimed at gigantic idols, the new imagery feels more personal. In these songs, I heard nothing like "Antichrist Television Blues" or "Windowsill"; there were no apocalyptic fables or ambitious world slogans. Instead, there was naturalism: small pictures of joy, calamity and stasis. The images were nostalgic, bittersweet, but never maudlin. I heard regret; I heard loss; and a sometimes direct voicing of heartbreak.
For the first time since the departure of Brendan Reed and Dane Mills, eons ago, Arcade Fire have two drum kits. Régine and Jeremy played together for just the first few songs, but instead of adding elaborate flourishes, polyrhythmic fills, the drummers were each-other's ghosts. It was as if the drums were double-tracked, folded back upon themselves, like the shadows in an old cassette tape. Other than this change, the new material didn't bother with instrumental novelties: no hurdy-gurdy, melodica or accordion. Instead, there were often just four electric guitars, heavy as hell, and charging.
Leaving for the show that night, there had been the frisson of attending a small and secret event; excitement for new music; sadness that I couldn't bring guests; but also a degree of distance, the self-conscious cynicism of going to see a band that I loved less than I used to. Two hours later, I had been completely overtaken. I was dazzled and rosy. I was with a friend, thrilled and thrown, smiling old smiles. Feelings I thought I had left behind were unfurling in me.
I do not know what The Suburbs will be, with its hundred cooks in the kitchen; nor what this band will sound like on an arena's wide, clear sound system. I know just that I went to an exceptional show on Friday night, by a group called Arcade Fire. They had unearthed treasure chests. I'm grateful.Posted by Sean at June 5, 2010 8:41 PM
I've been waiting on this all day, and it was totally worth it. Cheers, man.Posted by Jenny D. at June 5, 2010 10:09 PM
gosh,I envy you.cheers from BrazilPosted by Pedro at June 5, 2010 10:21 PM
Such a great review!Posted by Maria at June 5, 2010 10:26 PM
Fantastic review. I can't wait to see them live soon.Posted by jk at June 5, 2010 10:41 PM
Wish I Were There!Posted by Pedram at June 5, 2010 10:51 PM
Oh, man. This makes me nostalgic.Posted by Lukas at June 5, 2010 11:27 PM
I'm seriously jealous.Posted by Melissa at June 5, 2010 11:36 PM
I'm so happy to hear that one of my favorite neighborhood bands has emerged from the creative voyage winning hearts and exciting the most discerning fans. I'm really excited to see this tourPosted by DvG at June 5, 2010 11:48 PM
So jealous. And so happy you shared. Thanks!Posted by Fred at June 6, 2010 12:28 AM
amazing review. you have a way with words. definitely makes me nostalgic. i can't wait to see them play live again.Posted by wini at June 6, 2010 2:34 AM
AWESOME review....you've evoked the real MAGIC of Arcade Fire in your words and I really can't wait to see them again myself...truely THE BEST BAND in the world EVER! :-)Posted by Spidey at June 6, 2010 3:49 AM
I am SO excited!Posted by ri at June 6, 2010 9:46 AM
This review makes me miss Ottawa...I hope I can make it up to Bluesfest to see 'em in JulyPosted by cliffdogg at June 6, 2010 1:33 PM
:)Posted by Dylan at June 6, 2010 4:15 PM
Awesome review, you made it come alive in my mind. Can't wait to see them at the Hove festival. Cheers and a big hug from Norway (:Posted by Eivind August at June 7, 2010 11:21 AM
very nicely written indeed, not often you read this kind of writing about music. I've only heard the song Suburbs so far but I think it sounds amazing, looking forward a lot to this releasePosted by Patrik at June 7, 2010 2:34 PM
Sean: Makes me think of seeing them open for the Wrens at Casa del Popolo oh so many years ago. I distinctly remember rocking out with you and many others in the front. Nostalgia! Best wishes from Morocco.Posted by Mike at June 7, 2010 5:47 PM
Thanks for this great piece. One of the most well written reviews I've read in a long time...Posted by Pascal at June 10, 2010 5:23 AM
Reading this gave me goose bumps.Posted by Alec at June 17, 2010 10:42 PM
very fine writing about a wonderful experience with a great band. as i say to friends on such magic evenings.... "this is why we still go out at night...."
LOVE Arcade Fire! Just found out that they're letting fans share their photos online and they'll screen them at their concert. Pretty cool!http://bit.ly/arnq0fPosted by Alex at August 2, 2010 10:41 AM