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Great Balls of Fire

The Arcade Fire's vast, spastic music will have you confused, thrilled and begging for more

It's noon on Saturday, the earliest I've managed to wake myself up the whole week I've been at the CMJ music festival in New York. Under the circumstances, it isn't early enough. Frustrated with myself, I throw on some clothes and double-time it out into the cold October air, onto the streets of SoHo, past the yuppies brunching, across Bowery and into the Lower East Side, past Moby's stupid vegan restaurant, over the puddles and through the trash. The Arcade Fire is playing in four hours. Four! The line's probably around the block already. What if I don't -- no, I will. Hustle. Go. Go...

When I arrive at the venue it's all but empty. Figures. Those of us who've been doing the CMJ thing for the past few days are beat like ground chuck; of course no one got here before noon. I belly up to the bar and order a Coke, giving my liver a well-deserved break. People start trickling in.

Two opening bands and three hours later, the small dark room where the stage sits is crammed like a chicken farm. The hallway from the other bar to this room is a clotted artery. Through a window that faces the street there's a frustrated throng of people pleading to get in. It's getting hard to breathe. Next to me a bartender and the promoter get into a screaming match: There are too many people in here. No there aren't. Yes there are. No there aren't...

Houstonian Win Butler (right): "…to have people 
talking about buzz and hype in association with 
something I do is just like, 'Huh? I don't know.' "
Houstonian Win Butler (right): "…to have people talking about buzz and hype in association with something I do is just like, 'Huh? I don't know.' "

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"I need to get out!" growls a girl, trying to squeeze her way to the door.

Those of us who have fought for our chance to be here are undeterred. In a few minutes the musicians in the Arcade Fire will take the stage, all seven of them.

"We're the flavor of the month," Houston-bred front man Win Butler had announced during the band's impossible-to-get-into show two nights earlier. True, that. One thousand acts play CMJ each year, and thousands of fans, journalists and record executives converge on the city like a frothing crew of Ahabs. This year's Moby-Dick: the Arcade Fire. A few months ago the band lit up the blogs of those obsessive music geeks whom everyone unwittingly trusts (because, duh, they're usually right), then PitchforkMedia.com, that Dead Sea Scroll of indie cool, pronounced its debut, Funeral, a 9.7 out of 10, the kind of rating the site reserves exclusively for records made by obscure Japanese noise acts and the Ghost of John Lennon.

"Now this I've gotta see," we all thought in unison, and then we packed our bags and hightailed it to New York. Hence the lack of oxygen in the room I'm standing in, the folded arms, the ready glares. We've come to see the Arcade Fire, but in truth, we've come to judge the Arcade Fire, see if it measures up. No band can contend with this kind of hype. No band that I've ever heard of.

The musicians take the stage. Win Butler is wearing a tattered tuxedo smeared in red paint; other members -- Richard Parry, Tim Kingsbury, Jeremy Gara and Win's little brother Will -- are wearing shirts and ties, similarly splattered. The two girls in the band, Régine Chassagne (who happens to be Win's wife) and Sarah Neufeld, have pretty black dresses on. It's as if they're all going to the prom in Peter Pan's Neverland. No, it's as if they're about to play the shit out of that prom. A loud guitar rings out a single dirty chord in sharp staccato pulses:

CHRR-CHRR-CHRR-CHRR-CHRR...

The drummer starts pounding a "We Will Rock You" beat. BAAASSS-snare. BAAASSS-snare. BOOOM-bap. BOOOM-bap.

Six Lost Boys and Girls walk to the front of the stage and in unison start screaming their fucking heads off, thrusting their fists in the air, wailing, screeching, challenging. It's a force field of sound they build around themselves with their voices, a semi-permeable membrane that deflects all glares, absorbs all the curious, the earnest, the openhearted. Without warning or permission, the biggest smile I've ever had parks itself on my face and refuses to leave. This song is called "Wake Up." It's the seventh track on Funeral, and it is the song with which the Arcade Fire opens every show.

Like Moby-Dick, the band humbles all those who try to ensnare it, destroys the tools of their trade; i.e., words. Funeral is a Rorschach test of sound: Everyone who listens hears something different. I hear the raw simplicity of the Pixies mingling with the charm and fervor of the Flaming Lips, and sense the same camaraderie and enthusiasm in the music as I do in that of those other multi-instrumental Montrealers, Broken Social Scene. I also hear the frayed honesty of the Cure, the wily pop experimentalism of the Talking Heads (there's an Arcade Fire cover of "This Must Be the Place" floating around the Internet, and it's worth looking for). Yet none of that accounts for the interplay of accordions and violins on most of the songs, the homemade percussion instruments that the band members are always beating, the weird keyboards, the occasional steel drum, the fact that Parry and Will Butler spend most of an Arcade Fire show running around the stage just banging on anything and everything -- the walls, the stage, speakers and pipes, even their own singer.

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Concert Calendar

  • October
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    23
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