Arcade Fire | photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Rock Redemption: Arcade Fire more than proves their worth at Festival Pier
Did Arcade Fire have something to prove last night? Opening their Festival Pier set with the galvanizing, rafter-raising, indisputable biggest anthem of their nearly two-decade career — the life-affirming “Wake Up” from their debut Funeral, which is as powerful today as it was upon its 2004 release — seemed to indicate such. Following it up with two more songs from that same album — the askew, nervy “Neighborhood #2 (Laika),” and the indie-dance groove of “Rebellion (Lies)” — felt even more like a bit of a bid for redemption. Hey, remember our album that everybody loved? The one with all these amazing songs you know by heart?
This might have been a somewhat necessary move, following the not-terrific 2017 that Arcade Fire had. Their fifth LP, Everything Now — admittedly not their strongest work, but a nevertheless solid collection of emotive postmodern rock with more than its share of pure bangers — was universally shat upon by the groupthink-minded indie press, which seemingly had been waiting for an opportunity to pounce on their onetime darlings and tear them a new one. Sure, the album was annoyingly marketed; in a method acting extension of its late-capitilasm / excessive-connectivity critique, Everything Now embodied the very things it was taking down in its lyrics and its packaging and its kitschy profusion of branding. But still, fidget spinners? The subsequently ambitious Infinite Content tour had them playing huge rooms to moderate crowds; which, the scale of the stage show couldn’t possibly take place anywhere but an arena, and the Wells Fargo Center stop was as good a gig as I’ve ever seen them play. Nevertheless, the Stereogums of the world jumped at the opportunity for some “Arcade Fire playing to half-empty venues” clickbait.
Which brings them to last night: a packed venue that’s more appropriate for the scale of the band’s Philly fan base (probably as many people or slightly more turned out to Festival Pier as did at Wells Fargo), a relatively stripped down stage show (short of a disco ball and two angled LEDs flashing video throughout the night, the overly busy boxing ring motif of last fall was discarded) and a humbled but nonetheless bigger-than-life band ready to kick some ass. And for whatever my cynicism was at their frontloading the set with three songs from one of their most iconic releases (plus two more from Funeral followed as the night progressed), by the time Win Butler and Régine Chassagne were trading vocals on “Rebellion” and Will Butler was leaping off the stage, pressing against the barricade, pummeling a poor rack tom in the faces of elated fans in the front row, I too was singing along with everybody else while snapping photos of the spectacle.
The band started the two-hour set from an island stage in the middle of the crowd before making their way through fans and to the front. They shouted out day one fans who saw their Philadelphia debut at the First Unitarian Church in 2004 before launching into “No Cars Go” from Neon Bible (the only song from that album to make an appearance last night, a shortchanging that’s my biggest complaint about the show), though the music cut short as Butler spotted a bloodied fan in the front of the crowd who needed medical attention. “Some things are more important than music, you know?” he said as security and EMTs carried the person out. As the scene unfolded, Butler spotted another fan waving a Haitian flag, and asked that it be passed to the stage so he could remind the crowd that $1 from each ticket was being donated to Partners In Health’s work in Haiti, taking the opportunity to speak out against the Trump administration’s restrictive stance on immigration. “If it wasn’t for immigration, Regine’s family never would have been able to come to North America,” he said. “We need to take care of each other, even when it’s inconvenient.”
After the brief interruption, the gig was back on, and flowed seamlessly; “No Cars” drove into “Deep Blue” and the electropop jam “Electric Blue,” a Chassagne-led song that is one of Everything Now‘s aforementioned bangers. The band dug deep; a performance of the rare demo “Cars and Telephones” made an appearance, as did “Headlights Look Like Diamonds” from Arcade Fire’s 2003 self-titled EP. “This was our first hit,” Butler joked. “I think ten people liked it.” It actually sounds much better, and more true to the band that Arcade Fire became, in its current live arrangement versus the original EP version, a flowing chamber rock tune that amplified over the course of some five or so minutes to a dazzling conclusion.
Later, a performance of The Suburbs’ “Ready To Start” felt a bit lackluster, and Butler’s frustrated facial expressions made me wonder if the guy had blown his voice out somewhere along the way. Thankfully, a block from 2013’s Reflektor found them collectively rebounding, the frontman wandering through the crowd to sing the cathartic disco jam “Afterlife” (and mash it with New Order’s “Temptation” towards the end), and then following it with an intense take on “We Exist” and its paean to outcast frustration. Next we heard an absolutely leveling performance of “Creature Comfort,” a meditation on mental health and self-image, and easily the best song on Everything Now. And as the main set wrapped on “Neighborhood #4 (Power Out),” Butler dropped a lyric at a crucial moment, and sheepishly laughed. “We’re human, we make mistakes too,” he said, before launching right back into the fray.
And that’s the thing; for all its flaws, perceived as well as actual, Arcade Fire makes some of the best rock music of this young century, and puts their collective nine hearts into playing it with more zeal than anyone else around.
Below, check out a gallery of photos from last night’s concert, plus a setlist and fan videos.
Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
No Cars Go
Cars and Telephones
Put Your Money On Me
Headlights Look Like Diamonds
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
Ready to Start
Afterlife / Temptation
Neighborhood #4 (Power Out) / I Give You Power
Everything Now (Continued)
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)