The reaction was more or less uniform among my friends: amazed excitement that the Arcade Fire would be playing our fair city of Portland, followed by utter bewilderment and disappointment that the chosen venue would be the Memorial Coliseum. An arena! Despite the constant bashing of the sound at places like the Crystal Ballroom, couldn’t the band reconsider and not play a place that sounded like the inside of an airplane hangar?
It is interesting because my friends and I were only recently trying to figure out which bands that debuted in the last decade could fill a place like U2 or Springsteen. Maybe the Kings of Leon, but doubtful. Was the Arcade Fire the band to pull off such a feat? When Bono and Bruce limp off into the golden years, taking their stadium-sized theatrics with them, who would fill the void?
I must admit that it has been ages since I’ve been to an arena show. I think the last one was Leonard Cohen in Seattle and then Springsteen in DC a few years before that. The people who determined the floor plan and prices decided to make the entire arena general admission, but your ticket was designated for the “floor” or the “bowl.” We got bowl tickets and had the luxury of elevated seats just to stage left. Meanwhile the people on the floor strained and struggled to see. Being in the stadium was like going back in time; hawkers sold cotton candy and candy apples; a Bud Light cost $7.75. I was waiting for someone to start the Wave.
When Tucson collective Calexico began their 45 minute opening set with Feast of Wire’s “Across the Wire,” the echo in the half-empty arena was immense. The floor was filling up but the entire upper portion of the seated section was empty. Joey Burns was animated and the band thrummed with energy, but the sound ricocheted around the place, bullets of snare, cannonballs of bass. I wanted to duck. Despite the crazy acoustics, Calexico tore into songs like “Two Silver Trees,” a cover of Love’s “Alone Again Or” and “The Crystal Frontier,” the crowd appreciative and attentive.
The anticipation was rife in the air as the road crew prepared for the Arcade Fire’s set. The band returned this year with the powerful The Suburbs and wowed audiences with a live simulcast show from New York City. The eight members of the Arcade Fire took the stage, kicking off a more than 100-minute set with Suburbs masterpiece “Ready to Start.” What an amazing burst of energy, despite the echo. The entire seated section stood and danced as the general admission kids below us bobbed with life. The band then moved into the worst song on the new record, the rocker “Month of May.” Win Butler sang of “kids standing with their arms folded tight.” Definitely the right town for hipster scorn, but definitely the wrong venue this evening.
The set tempered new songs with the old. The crowd sang along to tunes like “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” and “No Cars Go,” the band playing them with a level of energy that belied their age. While those of us who have seen the Arcade Fire know what to expect out of their show, and we can wonder how much of the brio is actually calculated, I’m sure those new to the band walked away enthralled, despite the enormity of the venue. Butler, his crazy haircut old news by now, said little to the crowd between songs, focusing instead on the intensity generated on stage. When he did speak, it was to share quips like, “It is really fucking dangerous to come to Portland when the sun’s out. You could almost think you could live here.”
Butler’s wife and co-writer Régine Chassagne took the lead for songs like “Haiti” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” Dressed in a frilly, bright blue dress, Chassange vogued the same dance movements to “Haiti” that I saw her do back in 2005. But for as art school amateur “Haiti” felt, the slower-than-the album-version of”Mountain Beyond Mountains,” with its “Heart of Glass” vibe, felt fully formed, an invective about those who want us to stop singing, wear suits and give up.
Butler returned to the mike and took over duties on keyboards for the mournful “Crown of Love,” definitely one of the show’s highlights. Then came a string of Suburbs tunes “Modern Man,” “Rococo” and the title track, all of which people sang along with like they’ve been with us for some time. Members of Calexico joined the band to flesh out “Ocean of Noise,” a somber, intimate song from Neon Bible.
And there was the problem in a nutshell. Despite the personal nature of these songs, I couldn’t help but remember I was in an arena. As Butler sang of dead parents on “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” its funereal grace was swallowed up by an ocean of noise not endorsed by the band. Butler must have been self-conscious about the arena when he said, “A couple of years ago we felt uncomfortable playing big rooms but now we’re happy that the people who want to come see us can come see us.” It’s a slippery slope, sacrificing intimacy and sound quality so no one gets shut out. Definitely noble, but it’s hard to go back once you go there.
The set continued with the bombastic “Intervention” and the pounding “We Used to Wait” before Butler warned, “If you guys have been saving it up, now would be the time!” Finishing with the one-two Funeral punch of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” and “Rebellion (Lies),” the Arcade Fire pushed a great evening into rocking mayhem. Bathed in red strobe lights, the band went all out, pounding drums, strumming violins, singing their fucking hearts out before leaving the stage in a sweaty mess.
But there was more to go. The short encore of “Keep the Car Running” and “Wake Up,” where the crowd went insane on the breakdown, followed. At exactly 11pm on the nose, the band left the stage and we filed out of the arena, the final echoes of a great concert still booming after we were all long gone.
by David Harris
[Photos: Kristof Acke]