Honestly, I was initially less than enthusiastic after hearing Arcade Fire would be performing at Madison Square Garden. Thanks to indifferent crowds, less-than-ideal acoustics, uncomfortable seats, a lack of intimacy, and the almost-certainty of a band succumbing to the temptation of overindulging in time-tested arena rock histrionics, none of my experiences seeing bands in arenas have been especially enjoyable ones. Logically, arenas were inevitable for Arcade Fire after their 2007 amphitheater tour with LCD Soundsystem and headlining gigs at festivals around the world. When seeing the band perform at the Troubadour over five years ago, I wondered if the doors would fly off their hinges as the club was far too small to contain the energy within. Four months later they completely enthralled the massive crowd at Coachellas second stage and literally stopped every passer-by in their tracks during one of the most important performances in the festivals history. Too big for intimate venues and more than capable of spellbinding a festival crowd, it has always been a matter of when, not if, they would become an arena act. The real question has actually been whether or not some of the magic would get lost in such an enormous environment.
Arcade Fire answered that question last night at their first performance since the official release of their new album The Suburbs. Not just any arena, but the worlds most famous one, New York Citys Madison Square Garden was the least suburban venue imaginable to host the bands unofficial album release party. After taking the stage, Arcade Fire appropriately opened with Ready to Start. One of the most urgent songs from The Suburbs, Ready to Start proved to be even more propulsive live. Following Start was the Funeral classic Neighborhood #2 (Laika), which lost none of its larger-than-life charm in The Garden. In fact, it was more anthemic than ever.
Running through the venue is not feasible at an arena, nor is performing an acoustic number at the back of the crowd or in the lobby, but Win Butler still made a physical connection with the crowd to accompany the emotional by stepping onto a platform in the photo pit for No Cars Go as the hardcore fans in the front row desperately grabbed at their indie rock idol. Continuing the streak of unrelenting anthemic joy, Régine Chassagne took the lead for Haiti.
Consecutively playing three raucous, show-stopping epics so early in the set pumped up the crowd to the point that the energy level was too high to wholly dissipate during the subsequent string of comparatively unfamiliar tunes. Half Light II was a cross between U2 and Depeche Mode, but more engaging than the recent output from either band. Whether or not any of the targets of the hipster-condemning lyrics of Rococo in attendance caught the message and took it to heart remains to be seen, but the eerie beauty of the song in a live setting will make it a crowd favorite for years to come.
The most surprising moment of the night came when Win Butler addressed the crowd of New Yorkers by pointing out his favorite part of Madison Square Garden, and then clarifying that its where Hakeem Olajuwon blocked a last-second shot from John Starks, a reference to the Houston Rockets narrow victory over the New York Knicks in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals. This is not your fathers sycophantic arena rock banter. Although this piece of basketball smack talk inspired an eruption of jeers, it was immediately forgiven thanks to the overwhelming one-two punch of Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) into Rebellion (Lies).
After a standard encore break, Arcade Fire returned to the stage for Keep the Car Running, a final sermon from Neon Bible, and The Suburbs gem Sprawl II. For the Blondie-channeling Sprawl II, the under-utilized-as-a-frontwoman Régine Chassagne took the lead once again and twirled along with streamers flowing from her hands. While the synth-driven Sprawl II is undoubtedly the most surprising song from Suburbs, and arguably the best, it came across as a song still developing its live identity. Nevertheless, it was still a captivating performance and a highlight of the evening.
Closing out their set was Wake Up, a song that still proved to be their most transcendent, euphoric live staple as the crowd raised their arms and sang along, completely free of inhibition. To state that the band was more than capable of mesmerizing a capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden would be selling them short. More accurately, the redemption of arena rock is a task Arcade Fire was born to accomplish, and they succeeded beyond the wildest of expectations.
Ready to Start
Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
No Cars Go
Half Light II (No Celebration)
Crown of Love
We Used to Wait
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
Month of May
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
Keep the Car Running
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)