There’s anticipation, and then there’s anticipation for The Arcade Fire. Bursting onto the scene with 2004’s Funeral, the Montreal-based band were the pinnacle of the “Canadian Invasion”. A sprawling, inter-related, inter-disciplinary gang of musicians, The Arcade Fire blew everyone away with their expansive-yet-intimate, driving-yet-melodic sound, as well as their incredible live shows, which included violins, accordions, French horns, megaphones, organs, and even the violent crashing of one lone cymbal. Funeral jumped to the top of everyone’s “Best of 2004” lists, early fans made a mint on eBay selling their copies of the band’s previous, self-titled debut (until it was re-released the following year), they played to packed houses everywhere from Coachella to Union Square, played with everyone from David Bowie to Bono – and then disappeared to work on their next album, Neon Bible.
In the lead up to its March 2007 release, The Arcade Fire announced they were playing five straight nights in February, at the Judson Memorial Church in New York City. Only available on-line, tickets went on sale at 9:00 AM – and were sold-out by 9:09 AM. To prevent heated Craigslist scalping, there were no physical tickets, just names and credit card numbers that had to be matched at the door. On February 15th, the line to buy the precious few tickets they were selling at the door snaked all the way around the progressive church on Washington Square Park – the last person to get one had been waiting for over three hours in the cold wind and snow. There couldn’t have been more anticipation, had it been Jesus’ return spelled out on the church sign.
Of course, the bigger the anticipation, the bigger the potential letdown – that was something no one who got to see The Arcade Fire experienced. The crowd went wild once the lights dimmed, and only went crazier from there on in. Certainly one of the least pretentious New York indie crowds ever, no one, but no one, walked out of Judson Memorial Church disappointed. You know it’s a great show when there’s not a single song request shouted from the audience (though someone did plead with them to play Bonnaroo).
Under a stained-glass window and their own neon bible, The Arcade Fire played mostly songs off their new album, opening with the driving one-two punch of “Black Mirror” and “Keep the Car Running” (Neon Bible’s lead-off tracks). Lightning truly struck the crowd inside the church when they heard “Antichrist Television Blues”, whose fun, bopping quality is most unlike its title and working-class lyrics. With new songs like those three, “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations”, or “Windowsill”, there was no need for any oldies requests.
The crowd may have been a little more feverish when The Arcade Fire played older material – but even some of that is actually off of Neon Bible: the anthemistic “No Cars Go” was reworked from The Arcade Fire for the new release, as was the even-older “Intervention” (whose lyrics, “Working for the church while your family dies,” had a unique fit that evening). Later in the set, the twin-Funeral billing of the action movie-crossed-with-opera that is “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)”, and the revolutionary-in-every-sense-of-the-word “Rebellion (Lies)”, was probably the closest the audience came to literally rocking the church off of its foundation.
But The Arcade Fire’s closer managed to surpass all of their incredible work that night. After returning from an incredibly short encore break and playing Neon Bible’s title track, all nine musicians on stage picked up their instruments and walked straight into the middle of the crowd! Shoulder-to-shoulder with the audience, Funeral’s “Wake Up” was an unbelievable exercise by the band in becoming ‘one’ with their fans – even the fact that they had to play acoustic actually drew them in closer with the crowd, as it made the audience as much a singer as guitarist/vocalist Win Butler. After that, everyone knew that they couldn’t ask for anything more, but the crowd still cheered with encore-demanding fury, all in appreciation of an amazing night.
There were a few less-than-perfect notes, such as the slightly pitchy combo of “Haiti” and the first half of “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations”, or how the downbeat tone of “Neon Bible” didn’t mesh with the enthusiasm the crowd had upon the band’s encore return (almost as if The Arcade Fire wanted to mellow out the audience, before walking among them), but those were few and far between. At one point, Butler complained of too much feedback, but then relented, saying, “Life’s too short.” Before playing “My Body Is a Cage”, Butler warned that his body really was a cage – of flu – that night, but that didn’t seem to hinder either that song or any others.
With the release of Neon Bible, The Arcade Fire faces the risk of letting down out-sized expectations, of hipster critics finally getting a chance to say what they always love to say, “I like their older stuff better.” With The Arcade Fire’s performance at Judson Memorial Church, not only can hipsters not be critics, but also those expectations can’t even be called out-sized – since the band blew right past them.