Arcade Fire at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 4/9/2014
Who is that masked man?
Photos by Jim Bricker
Arcade Fire Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion April 9, 2014
I may not be the first person to say it, but then Arcade Fire is not the first group to counter the "most important band in the world" tag by breaking out the costumes and mirrors. U2 is the obvious model, with their Joshua Tree-Achtung Baby-Zooropa cycle, but the tradition is at least as old as their fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde, and no doubt a lot older. "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person," the 19th-century wit famously said. "Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."
Arcade Fire's latest album, Reflektor, is clouded with suspicion and anxiety. It's the kind of record a band who has conquered the world and is wondering both who they can trust and what to do next might make, but it's so full of shiny surfaces, synthesizer-spawned smoke and mirrors, and a relentless Studio 54 beat that you'd almost never notice. The camera never lies, and there is always redemption on the dance floor. Not their best record, maybe, but maybe the one that translates best to the stage.
But Wednesday night at the Pavilion, the outsize Montreal group with deep roots in The Woodlands had just come from playing Lollapalooza in Brazil, so maybe they were in a festive mood anyway. Decked out in costumes loosely inspired by Day of the Dead and legendary NashVegas clothier Jaime Nudie -- such as the striking neon-pink fringe on co-founder Regine Chassagne's black dress -- Arcade Fire came off like a band that might be a little tired of talking in their own collective person and was ready to put on some masks for a while. The violinist sawing away in a full-blown lucha libre special was an especially nice touch.
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Thing is, though, it's still Arcade Fire. Some bands build songs out of a handful of chord changes, but Arcade Fire prefers to start with a simple musical figure -- a rhythm, a riff, a two- or three-note bass line -- and compound it to the Nth degree. On the intensity scale, they tend to start at "up" and finish somewhere in the stratosphere. The remarkable thing is how so many people onstage playing so many different instruments (as many as 12 Wednesday...I think) all plug into the same circuit, like little creeks feeding into a raging river.
For example, during "Ready to Start," which came midway through the band's 100-minute performance, this was going on onstage, left to right: keyboards, guitar, congas, cowbell, Chassagne on drums, co-founder Win Butler on vocals and guitar, another set of drums, guitar, Win's brother Will playing two or three keyboards at once (it was hard to tell), and that luchador violinist. Even with the masks on, it's almost impossible for Arcade Fire to disguise who they are as a band -- one that bets the house on each song.
And mind you, that is a baseline Arcade Fire song. That same formula of lots of instruments, one enormous wall of sound held true (more or less) through the bulk of the evening, especially songs from 2004 breakthrough album Funeral like "Neighborhood 3 (Power Out)," "Rebellion (Lies)" and "Neighborhood 2 (Laika)." Those songs are cathartic, and absolutely were Wednesday, but they're also a little exhausting, especially right on top of each other.
The only real break in the action Wednesday came six songs in, when Win Butler sidled up to an upright piano to sing the wistful "The Suburbs," the closest thing to a country tune Arcade Fire has in its catalog, and an effective island of calm amid all the Statement Rock and now Dance Mania. Wish there was a little more of that, really.
But make no mistake, adding elements of '70s music (disco, yes, but just as much the work of German groups like Can or Kraftwerk) was a smart move for the band. It made the newer songs like "Flashbulb Eyes," "Joan of Arc" and "Afterlife" even more interesting by adding deeper shadows and sharp angles to go with all the electronic bells and whistles.
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Eventually this side of the band won out, and the show climaxed with the quickening pulse of "It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus)" -- featuring a spotlit Chassagne singing from by the soundboard, but projected onscreen behind the band like some omnipotent goddess -- "Sprawl 2 (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," which led seamlessly into Blondie's "Heart of Glass." And despite what you may have read elsewhere on Rocks Off, this cover was 100 percent spot on.
That leaves us with the encore. Today most people are probably talking about the procession that closed out last song "Wake Up": the band led a lengthy parade around the Pavilion's covered seating area, and ending up in an acoustic circle by a pillar near one of the video screens. They might still be playing for all I know, but the most striking moment of the whole concert was the first song, "Normal Person."
During this lethal Some Girls-meets-Nevermind rocker a bunch of people in plastic Krofft-like masks crowded the stage, including someone in a Hakeem Olajuwon jersey, while someone else wore a TV on his head broadcasting images of both Rick Perry and George W. Bush.
It may not have made a lick of sense (Republicans are Talking Heads?), but it sure was fun. Maybe for their next act, Arcade Fire can get legitimately weird.
Personal Bias: The show made me want to spend some more time with Reflektor, but I'm still waiting for Arcade Fire's country album. I know they've got it in 'em.
The Crowd: Knew every syllable to "Wake Up." Some interesting masks besides the ones onstage.
Overheard In the Crowd: While we were being showered with confetti and the band was still onstage during "Wake Up," a stranger grabbed my notebook and wrote this charming verse. (I hate that shit.)
Your breath is like a fart Wet and cruel But in my heart I love it It makes me feel...cool
Random Notebook Dump: I bet Bill Clinton likes Arcade Fire more than Barack Obama does.
SET LIST Reflektor Flashbulb Eyes Neighborhood 3 (Power Out) Rebellion (Lies) Joan of Arc The Suburbs Ready to Start Neighborhood 1 (Tunnels) No Cars Go Neighborhood 2 (Laika) My Body Is a Cage (briefly) Afterlife It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus) Sprawl 2 (Mountains Beyond Mountains) Heart of Glass (Blondie cover)
ENCORE Normal Person Here Comes the Night Time Wake Up
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