(Photos: Peter Hutchins)
Getting to the Webster Bank Arena requires driving through downtown Bridgeport, Connecticut, the kind of city that looks like it has undergone perpetual renovation since the mid-1950s, when industrial jobs made their rapid exodus south, west, east; anywhere but here. The Historical District is full of shops covered up with plywood itself covered in graffiti. “Forgive Our Appearance,” said more than one sign. Police officers shepherded traffic toward a couple of overpriced lots in a way that said “this is a big deal here” and later tried to guide the cars of 6000 attendees through two exits. I chose to park next to a vacant lot instead.
In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Win Butler made the not-so-audacious claim that he is “a fucking rock star,” a comment he caught quite a bit of flack in the indie rock press for. I’m not sure why this should be controversial: Arcade Fire is clearly having its rock star moment, headlining arenas across the country and getting skewered in hip publications the way all proper famous bands should. The young and exciting don’t play for 6000 people in Connecticut on a Tuesday, but rock stars do.
Throughout the show, Butler made his frequent claim to stardom, throwing an AF monogrammed scarf into the audience, dragging a fan up on the stage for a cover of Prince’s “Controversy,” and otherwise strutting and flaunting like a pro. The band used its Reflektors bobblehead likenesses several times throughout the show, deployed and discarded several backdrops and decorated the stage and arena with chintzy palm trees a la Neil Young circa Tonight’s the Night. During the first two songs, “Reflektor” and “Flashbulb Eyes,” Butler grabbed outheld phones and took a selfie and made a random call. This chart-topping, Grammy-winning, critically-adored (and then derided) band pulled no punches when invoking its hugeness.
How strange and different the band was from my first time seeing them, at Randall’s Island in 2007. And how much the audience landscape has undoubtedly changed for Arcade Fire as well. At that show I don’t remember anyone filming on iPhones, for the first model had only been released less than six months before but now they’re beyond ubiquitous, with seemingly half the stadium filming or taking pictures they will likely never look at again. Reflektor was decried for its supposed naivety in critiquing digital technology, but imagine the perspective of the band, which once saw a sea of faces and now sees only raised arms and phones?
But this is hardly the same band. In 2007 Arcade Fire was newly famous and scrappy, not used to performing for 25,000 screaming fans, rushing all over the stage in sweaty and tattered clothes and employing low-tech projections and lighting design, even megaphones at various points. But on March 18 I saw coordinated dance moves, a hydraulic stage in the back used by all the acts (openers Kid Koala and Dan Deacon included) and a pivoting mirror array above the stage. The band focused on its newest material with select callbacks to Funeral and The Suburbs, including only one song, “No Cars Go,” from Neon Bible. Rock stars don’t play mandolins, it seems.
It was a loud and rumbling show, as arena mixes tend to be, and sometimes, especially on the Reflektor tracks, the sound was blown-out in a way that drowned most of the instruments. In those select moments where the crowd could be heard, the show felt as powerful as years ago, especially as the band quit and allowed the audience to sing “The Suburbs’” chorus by itself, Butler conducting from the stage. Old reviews used to describe Arcade Fire as a religious experience, and this was the closest we got to piercing the bombast.
Not to impugn the bombast, of course, because as an arena rock band Arcade Fire excelled there as well. “Here Comes the Night Time” came second-to-last in the encore and showered the crowd in confetti. I found some in my pockets the next morning. And “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” began with Régine Chassagne on the rear stage, making her way through a security guard corridor to the front, leading the audience in the wildest dance number of the night. And those decoys opened the encore with a fake cover of John Mayer, before the band took the stage to scold them for not singing Hatebreed instead. There is no rule saying a band like AF needs to make one cry at a show; fun’s okay too.
When I first saw Arcade Fire, it was my favorite band by a very large margin. Funeral and especially Neon Bible are two of my favorite records, and at that 2007 show we heard pretty much the whole of both with some self-titled EP tracks thrown in too. It would be no understatement to say the songs from those albums were my favorites of the night, dredging up old emotions like they did. “Haiti” benefited from the fuller band, particularly the two additional percussionists. And while I liked Reflektor just fine, particularly its understated second half, its dominance of the setlist was a bit of a comedown.
But bands cannot remain young and scrappy forever, and hopefully as they age they mature and grow, and AF seems to have done just that. But as it has done so, it becomes a band I listen to less and less often, something I reflected on during my two-hour drive home. Though it remains a powerhouse live, its energy has been replaced with a kind of professional vigor known as confidence. No one climbed a 100-foot stage-support while banging a drum like those years ago, and everyone remained very safely on the ground, and even away from the crowd. As “fucking rock stars,” there is little left to prove except that they can. And sometimes this means that, when presented a choice of bands to listen to or see, I probably won’t pick AF. And, singing along to the Hold Steady as my car chewed up the miles of night, I guess that’s something I’m okay with.