The capacity at Madison Square Garden is 19,763, which means that last night an awful lot of people saw Arcade Fire, even factoring in the curtained-off portion behind the stage. Not all of them were prototype indie-rock kids either: there were dads and sons in matching Arcade Fire t-shirts, there were groups of teenage girls in flimsy dresses, there were frat dudes, Deadheads, gray-haired couples, people who definitely still have no idea who Spoon is, let alone Owen Pallett, and there was at least one gentlemen in a sportcoat—all huddled together in the center of a major metropolis to hear a band sing about the suburbs.
Throughout the night, there was a feeling that this was a Big Deal. Maybe it was because Matt Pinfield called it “an historical night for independent music” when he introduced the show (weird?), or that fact that frickin’ Spoon played and no one even blinked an eye, but crediting either factor would be taking away from the grandeur of Arcade Fire’s music. They pretty much nailed that whole anthemic/shooting for the stars/larger than life/arena-rock thing that people have associated with them for the past six years, and they looked like a sweet, wild mess doing so. At any given moment, a hundred different things were happening onstage at once, and not in the way that is typical for the venue. There were no props, save for a stream of neon-colored ribbons that Regine sashayed around with during her disco-dance number, “Sprawl II.” The stage matched the pared-down aesthetic of The Suburbs—just a backdrop of an ambiguous structure (a bridge? a highway overpass?) with a reel of corresponding images shown on a screen that hung from above (kids playing in a front yard during the new material, a ghostly little girl pacing back and forth during “Crown of Love,” an animated snowfall during “Neighborhood #1,” shots of the audience collectively losing it during “Wake Up”). A Lady Gaga concert, this was not.
It was the people who carried the weight of the show—eight band members who, more often then not, looked like they were in their own little worlds. William Butler’s only duty during “Crown of Love” was to tap a tambourine. He shifted between swinging it like a bat, circling it in the air like pitching a softball, and beating it against his chest. Every muscle in his body was used to rattle a handheld instrument. In a nutshell, that’s what makes Arcade Fire a Big Deal live band. Richard Reed Parry ran, literally, from one side of the stage to the other in order to get to his next appointed instrument in time. The two-piece string section (now with honorary member Owen Pallet on violin) were the unit of sanity, staying mostly, relatively composed. And there was Regine, who looked even tinier in such a large venue, dressed like a girl ready for her tap-dance recital in a silver sequined dress, skipping, dancing awkwardly, singing jubilantly, lugging around a hurdy gurdy, and doing a fair amount of drumming, either on an additional kit by Jeremy Gara’s side or taking his place while he manned a bass. And then there was Win. Dressed more like a modern-day farmer than a 19th century Amish man, he toed the line between Springsteen-style rock god, stern minister, and regular fellow who just happens to have gotten an asymmetrical haircut. (One side is shaved, sort of. This is big news on the blogs.) He knew when to pull back and knew when to pull out all the stops, and the audience knew how to respond accordingly.
The last few measures of a particularly upbeat rendition of “Haiti” were pure joy, the green glow of lights during “Rococo” turned it beautifully eerie, and when the rumbling outro to “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” turned into “Rebellion (Lies),” well, you know what happened then. Song after song, the band gave themselves to their music, leaving the audience with no choice but to do the same. By the time they were back on stage for their encore (“Keep the Car Running,” “Sprawl II” and “Wake Up”—my god, “Wake Up”), it started to register: If Arcade Fire’s latest album revolves around the “us vs. them” struggle, then their live show revolves around the realization of just how many people “us” can be.