Arcade Fire, Explosions In the Sky Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion May 4, 2011
Check out pics of Arcade Fire's intimate concert in our slideshow.
It was a sort of homecoming for titanic indie-rockers Arcade Fire Wednesday night in the Woodlands, as the band returned to Houston after five momentous years to play songs from The Suburbs, the Album of the Year-winning disc that was inspired in part by the neighborhoods surrounding the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion where members Win and Will Butler spent their formative years.
The venue's lawn was closed, a marked change from the usual sight of the teeming numbers lying on blankets and quilts. Bringing the crowd closer in to the stage, utilizing all of the covered seating - and only the covered seating - turned what is usually a terrifyingly alienating shed into a warmer club or theater setting.
Austin openers Explosions In The Sky laid down a perfect mist of their own churning instrumental rock around 8 p.m. to sate the noise-hungry masses. Their signature sound, intricate guitars and swelling expanses, is more of a main-course musical dish and not an opener, but they thrilled fans and newbies alike.
Aftermath took a lap around CWMP after getting a beverage and even the seats 100 yards back were great. Whether that was a band or Live Nation call, we don't know. The key element in Arcade Fire's success is the feeling of intimacy, on record and in the flesh, and we couldn't imagine seeing them in any place bigger than what they created in the Woodlands last night.
Thinking about seeing them at Madison Square Garden or Zilker Park seems like a clinical concept now.
Opening with clips from tribal youth flicks like Over The Edge and The Warriors put the band's Suburbs in the perfect context we had been waiting for. It's not an album about hating the suburbs, it's about the simple joys there, and the triumph of bringing those joys with you once you leave it.
Every AF disc has been about the suburbs in one way or the other, whether those of the mind or a physical locale. Look back at the band's Funeral album. They have been blessed with the gift of longing that makes them and Bruce Springsteen so good at conveying isolation while amongst great numbers, and feeling powerless in the midst of opulence.
The stabbing snare of "Ready To Start" got us kicked off around 9:30 p.m., with the crowd surging forward almost instantly. As for the band's supposedly tepid relationship with The Woodlands, Win Butler stepped out after that first song to ingratiate himself to his home base.
"Good evening The Woodlands, Texas. It's good to be home," Butler bellowed happily, his greeting met by manic applause and cheers. After so many tales through the grapevine of the bandleader feeling less than complimentary of The Woodlands and the area to the south, it was nice to hear.
It made everything after that much sweeter, especially for the natives. Butler also let it slip out later that he used to work at the venue, and was lax on ticket-checking toward the latter parts of shows, something he did not bring up by coincidence.
The set was a healthy mixture of the band's catalog, now at just three albums, it wasn't hard to touch all the bases. You had the spaghetti-western lilt of "Rococo" early on, the robo-folking "Keep The Car Running," and, most winningly, Funeral's "Haiti," from led by utility woman, Haitian descendant and Win Butler's wife Regine Chassagne.
Somewhere soon there should be a island-inflected, Tom Tom Club-type solo album from Chassagne if there is any funky justice in this world.
As the band went into "No Cars Go" and later on during the "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" encore, Aftermath felt the pronounced signature of The Clash's more adventuresome ventures on top of it. It was something we had been reaching for all night, and we finally hit on it.
Who knows? Maybe if Joe Strummer would have lived to see the band he would have fallen in love with their hopeful world-weariness and been their biggest cheerleader. You completely hear his latter-day Mescaleros in the AF mix.
Opening the encore with "Wake Up," the band went into full attack mode, unleashing every single weapon they had onstage. Live, AF is a damned gang, brutalizing you tenderly with some of the most decadent hooks available. People were headbanging to the song in a totally joyous way we cannot explain.
It's important to stress the communal element of this band that their fans share. You will be hard-pressed to find, outside of Christian praise and worship, a more reverent and earnest feeling within the crowd.
During the band's last tour go-round in 2007, they opened their sets with clips from religious television spots and eerie big-tent revival snippets. Screaming, holy ghost-filled howlers.
Arcade Fire are completely religious - their gospel of hope and perseverance comes preloaded, albeit with your favorite deity sold separately.
Personal Bias: We like bands that direct films in your head that no one will ever see.
The Crowd: Almost everyone in Houston seemed to be there last night, from musicians of every stripe to writers, promoters, and photographers, and even frequent Houston guest and Spoon front man Britt Daniel. Sadly, rapper/man-about-town Bun B was nowhere to be found. What, no guest spot on "Wake Up"?
Overheard in the Crowd: A guy behind us kept screaming "Canada" like he was a quarterback calling audibles in between songs.
Random Notebook Dump: "Rebellion (Lies)" could soundtrack a mass violent workers revolt or the best love story that Shakespeare could have written.
Ready To Start Keep The Car Running Neighborhood #2 (Laika) City With No Children Rococo Sprawl 1 (Flatland) Haiti Intervention The Suburbs Month Of May Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) No Cars Go We Used To Wait Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) Rebellion (Lies)
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Wake Up Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)