whooping throngs

Posted in Indie, Live Music by Giri Nathan on August 23, 2010

Epic songs call to mind epic scenes: rolling meadows, endless sea, snowy peaks (like you could almost see the hobbits trudging in the distance). Also, multi-million dollar stadiums. And when you find yourself in Madison Square Garden, like Arcade Fire did a few weeks ago, you play the venue to your advantage. The epic space was already there; they just needed to stuff it with sound. By chugging through a solid, stolid set, stowing away their not-so-secret weapon in the encore, they kept us writhing in our seats just waiting for the arena to erupt. Then they delivered.

obligatory crappy iPhone picture

Really, everything that happened before the encore is something of a blur: the set was excellent, in a satisfying, expected way. Old favorites were faithfully reproduced, fresh new Suburbs tracks were dutifully deployed, and we all nodded along. For obvious reasons, being in a stadium robs you — I’m speaking from an odd little perch in the box seats — of the intimacy of a smaller venue. There’s just a nagging feeling that there’s an elephant in the room, only the elephant is made out of several thousand cubic feet of air. An imposing hollowness, a barrier in itself. Frontman Win Butler at one point bravely attempted to perforate that barrier by plunging into the audience, but ended up just sort of walking through a devastatingly tame crowd and awkwardly crabwalking along a rail. Granted, that would’ve been a lot of fun had we been on the Terrace dance floor, but unfortunately these gestures don’t really translate to one of the world’s biggest stadiums. I thought they were at their best when they stood their ground, relegated their energies to the stage, and let the lights do the fancy tricks. Along the way, they got a few participatory yelps from the audience — a nice spattering of “Hey!”s during “No Cars Go” — but no real tremors. The set ended, strategically withholding some choice earth-shakers.

Arcade Fire – No Cars Go

And then the encore — but what is an encore really, anymore? it’s practically built-in to the set at this point. In any case they walked off the stage, walked back on the stage, brought in the heavy artillery, shattered the invisible barrier and got us on our feet.  Guaranteed crowd-pleasers, starting with this one.

Arcade Fire – Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)

That piano was a jangling ghost, a bag full of ivory bones, rising and fading slowly folding into itself — the unmistakable mark of my favorite Arcade Fire song. Then the drum & guitar lurch, then Win Butler’s voice cracking in all the right places, strained taut with with that very special brand of Texan angst. Tunnels! Tunnels straight through everyone; floored.

Then came a Suburbs song that I don’t really recall because it was sandwiched by such glory. It was a laid-back track, and Win cut it off halfway, feeling a lukewarm audience response, then restarted it, urging us to get into it because didn’t we know that was his wife singing that beautiful song? So we got into it and she finished it. He wouldn’t have to ask twice to get the audience involved on the next one.

Arcade Fire – Wake Up

0000-OOOO-00-OO-00-oo oooo-OOOO 00-OO-00-oo oooo-OOOO oo-OO-oo-oo … everyone sang along because everyone knew the “words.” Never have vowel sounds been so roar-worthy. They whaled away at that bass drum, hammering all our heartbeats into one. This is not an exaggeration. This was the stuff of cliché: the weird, wide-eyed moment where you realize you’re acting out an unrealized ideal, something that should appear in movies and in cottony dreamscapes but could never be acted out in reality. Columns of noise extended from each throat, connecting us all in a thick web of communal howl. Any sentient being in that room had  at least one arm in the air and their dumbly smiling jaws splayed wide open with sound — that song seared itself onto our ears and throats, reminding us why people pay to watch other people play music. (I even spotted some security guards dancing along.) And when it was over it was like we had emptied all our remaining energies into the air; I was totally physically (and spiritually?) drained. Madison Square Garden suddenly became a weird kind of emotional/aural vacuum and I drifted off in a daze.

Leaving the stadium in droves, no less than 3 different groups of people tried to recreate that shout-a-long, and everyone else was happy to oblige. As I left I tried to think of someone else I would’ve loved to shout along to in concert. The answer was incredibly obvious.


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  1. A Plea for Duets « malleus&incus said, on August 28, 2010 at 2:47 am

    […] course this doesn’t include the few artists (like She and Him or Arcade Fire) that have both male and female vocalists, but that is six whole collaborations. I’m not […]

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