BROOKLYN, NY—Win Butler and Josh Deu met at high school in Montreal, Canada, and continued an exchange of musical ideas into their university years. The two university students founded Arcade Fire around 2001, soon adding a fellow music student, Régine Chassagne. The trio recorded a set of demos and began performing live in the second half of 2001. Numerous musicians came and went, including Deu, but presently the band’s core lineup is husband-and-wife team Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, Win’s brother Will Butler, Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury and Jeremy Gara. The band continues to be a collective of sorts, as various core and extra musicians switch between guitar, bass guitar, piano, keyboard, synthesizer, drums, violin, viola, cello, double bass, xylophone, glockenspiel, French horn, accordion, harp, mandolin, and hurdy-gurdy. The band’s fourth and most current album is 2013’s Reflektor.
Arcade Fire headlined Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for three nights. The audience was treated to the extravagance of Arcade Fire’s circus-like show, but the audience also was designed to be part of the entertainment. First off, the admission tickets asked the public to come in formal attire or costume. Hundreds of fans complied. The main floor had no seating, giving the costumed fans adequate space to dance or perform. Also, in a very unusual move, the evening did not end with Arcade Fire’s performance; a disc jockey came on after the headliner and the audience was invited to stay and dance for another hour.
On the second night, after two opening acts, the stage curtain fell and more than a dozen musicians came on stage, including a horn section, string ensemble and several percussionists. Several unidentifiable people wearing huge Mardi Gras-style papier-mâché heads resembling the main band members appeared as a fake band, dancing to the disco-pop “Rebellion (Lies).” Across the floor from the main stage, a smaller hydraulic platform was raised sporadically for use as a sideshow stage. During “We Exist,” a song about coming out as gay, four male dancers in high heels were elevated on the platform and they imitated the song’s video with a choreographed dance. During “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus),” Chassagne appeared on the platform, surrounded by writhing dancers in skeleton suits, facing the main stage. Butler sang to her and she sang back her countermelody with the fans literally caught in the middle of the interplay. During “Afterlife,” a sole figure in a head-to-toe mirrored space suit turned slowly on the platform, reflecting light around the room. For the encores, the fake band took the B-stage for a cover of the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.” Marky Ramone then joined Arcade Fore on the main stage for covers of the Ramones’ “I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement” and “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Periodically through the set, cannons sprayed massive amounts of confetti onto the audience. The surprises never stopped.
The problem was that if the fans came to hear good music, that element was sorely missing. For all its worth, the Barclays Center did not have the acoustics for music to be appreciated. The venue was an echo chamber, and the sound was simply too loud and muddled, even near the sound board. Any nuance in the music and any interesting musical arrangements were overpowered simply by a wall of boom-boom rhythms and melodies. Perhaps this was complicated by the sheer number of musicians on the stage, usually about 13 and sometimes numbering as many as 25. Enjoying the visual stimulations of the sensory-loaded spectacle was easy, but the Arcade Fire audience could only enjoy the actual music if by familiarity the fans were singing along or listening to the recorded versions of the songs in their heads.