Arcade Fire's "Reflektour" journey across North America landed Sunday night (August 17) in Washington D.C.'s largest indoor venue, the Verizon Center and, just as the release of the similarly-titled "Reflektor" album proved divisive, the live show also brought out compliments and complaints. A freelance critic for the city’s preeminent newspaper, The Washington Post, called the band “bloated” (12 players onstage, including two horns and two string players) and the show itself “bland"in a scathing review.
I beg to differ. And I am not particularly a fan of “Reflektor” and its strained mix of world music and disco beats. Nor did I enter the venue hopeful of a engaging night, having found the costumes and overblown effects of the album-launch SNL appearance and post-show special to be annoyingly self-conscious. Unlike the many rabid fans who entered the venue in formal attire, or masks, or full-on costumes (the band had requested that fans dress up), I wasn't sure that Arcade Fire was still the same group that had so thoroughly floored me in their previous albums and tours.
But it became clear very quickly that the artsy production values that chafed on the small screen were just right for the band's move to big arenas. The band's desire to give the crowd a Fun Night Out was apparent as you entered, with a photo booth set up to take pics of the couples in their hipster prom attire.
The timing of the show was also designed to please. Brooklyn Afro-beat ensemble Antibalas kicked the night off with an invigorating set of rhythmic expertise, setting a dance party tone. Skipping the usual intermission between acts, Antibalas was barely off the stage before DJ and EMD composer Dan Deacon appeared on a small platform in the center of the arena floor to begin a half-hour set that was part "traditional" DJ set - flashing lights. heavy beats and lots of arm-waving - and (so much better!) an elaborate game of Simon Says Dance that had the floor crowd divided into sections to perform synchronized moves, keeping the floor audience active and the upper levels thoroughly entertained.
Once Deacon had charmed the crowd, the change-over was again swift, barely 15 minutes before the lights went back down and a mirrored figured began working his way to the stage, his suit catching and releasing light in kaleidoscopic fashion. Arcade Fire, it seems, didn't want to waste a moment getting on with the show. And, once the Mirror Man introduced them, they didn't waste anything else in the course of nearly two-hours of high-energy baroque rock, with clever effects all around. And thankfully, the set list ran wildly across the band's full catalog, with even the "Reflektor" songs holding their own.
Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, the reigning king and queen of alternative rock, are still major focal points. She wears neon gloves that accentuate her hand movements, waves neon streamers at one point, appears on the center floor platform at another to perform with two mimes (you can see why some people call the band pretentious, but it was OK), and takes leads on a few songs with Bjork-like presence. Butler, meanwhile is an imposing figure even beyond his six-foot-four height, wearing a deconstructed skeleton jacket or, for the encore, a huge paper mache head, his painted face looming large from the hive-like screens at either end of the stage as he takes the majority of vocal leads with fierce urgency.
The rest of the players get their screen time, too, as a near-constant swapping of instruments shows the ensemble to be an enthusiastic troupe that exults in making a great noise that sometimes approaches but never quite falls over into chaos. Obviously, scripted effects bring a solid structure to the show - a disco ball lowered over the crowd, the arrival of a pack of giant paper mache heads (including an Obama figure), a glitter cannon that briefly obscured the band during the encore. Still, when the band broke into a cover of "Waiting Room," by local hardcore heroes Fugazi (each stop on the tour has featured one such geographically-themed tribute), there was a reckless, punkish power to the performance that reinforced the notion that, as big and as commercially successful as they get, Arcade Fire is still a band of scruffy true believers at heart.
Bloated? Bland? Bah!
Upcoming Arcade Fire tour dates:
08/20 – Bangor, ME @ Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion
08/22 – Brooklyn, NY @ Barclays Center
08/23 – Brooklyn, NY @ Barclays Center
08/24 – Brooklyn, NY @ Barclays Center
08/26 – Chicago, IL @ United Center
08/27 – Chicago, IL @ United Center
08/29 – Toronto, ON @ Molson Canadian Amphitheatre
08/30 – Montreal, QC @ Parc Jean-Drapeau