Arcade Fire: A Live Wire At Constitution Hall

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 6, 2007

Arcade Fire ringleader Win Butler is a big man with big ideas -- a towering presence at 6 feet 5, with a penchant for making epic, exalted music. There's an undeniable grandeur and a thrilling vastness to the songs Butler performs with his Montreal-based band, but it's no empty bombast: In the studio and especially in concert, Arcade Fire's emotional music plays as deeply meaningful, soul-stirring art.

Friday night, performing at Constitution Hall, the indie-rock idols aimed for immensity, as always, and had little trouble hitting their mark. The 10 musicians played everything from guitars and drums to violas, xylophones, hurdy-gurdies and even a miniature pipe organ while whipping up a crescendoing super-size sound that tended to take the enraptured audience skyward.

Given their construct and the impassioned intensity and freneticism with which they were played, nearly all of the 15 songs sounded capable of providing rock-and-roll catharsis, if one were in search of such a thing.

And who wasn't? A ticket to an Arcade Fire show represents the possibility, if not the probability, of being transported -- of transcendence. It's the reason tickets to the 3,700-seat venue sold out in less than an hour. It's also why the band is becoming increasingly known as one of the most vital live acts in contemporary popular music -- a sort of modern-day art-rock answer to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, whose galloping music was echoed in Arcade Fire's superlative set-closer, "Keep the Car Running." (The Talking Heads are another important touchstone.)

While the music was lofty, the lyrics weren't all inherently uplifting. "Mirror, mirror on the wall / Show me where them bombs will fall," Butler sang during the opening "Black Mirror." Performing "Windowsill" midway through the 80-minute concert, he yelped: "I can't breathe! I can't sleep! World War III, when are you coming for me?" Both songs are from Arcade Fire's new album, "Neon Bible," a thematically bleak set about a world that's apparently on the verge of an apocalypse.

Butler didn't blame anybody by name for the current state of affairs, but he didn't really have to, emphatically singing: "I don't want to live in America no more!" Though he was born in Texas and prep-schooled in New England, the 27-year-old artist now lives in Canada with his Haitian-born wife, Regine Chassagne, with whom he formed Arcade Fire.

The lyrics tended to swim in an ocean of beautiful noise, with Butler's quavering, David Byrne-like vocals enveloped by the swirling sound and fury of a maniacal band that embraces discord and thrives on changes.

As the music surged and swelled during "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)," from Arcade Fire's lauded 2004 debut, "Funeral," the tempo accelerated until the song was transformed into a disco-rock number. The very next song -- the pulsating "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" -- seemed to end with Butler playing a power chord on his electric guitar . . . then resumed with a striking coda: a maelstrom of sound during which the musicians bashed away at their instruments, not to mention various other inanimate objects.

Another song, "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations," opened with Chassagne singing somewhat impishly before the tune shifted dramatically in tempo and key. Butler then resumed his primary role as lead vocalist -- though it's worth noting that everybody in Arcade Fire is a vocalist, as the full band shouts lyrics at certain points, sometimes into microphones, sometimes into bullhorns.

Of course, sometimes, not even that's enough vocal muscle to fulfill Butler's grand vision. For the encore, after a muddied version of the churchy "Intervention," Butler instructed the crowd to help him sing the night's final song, which opened with a gigantic Led Zeppelin-like drum stop. And then suddenly, on cue, members of the audience, who had flooded the concert hall's aisles at Butler's behest, began singing, "Oooh oooh oooh oooh." It was the lead-in to "Wake Up," a gloriously bitter anthem that provided a perfectly mighty ending to Arcade Fire's latest big night out.

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