Arcade Fire at Merriweather Post Pavilion, Discussed
In the mid-2000s, mainstream music got injected with an unexpected shot of indie rock, and Arcade Fire was one of the lucky bands to bask in that exposure. While the band hasn't ruled the airwaves with quite the same ubiquity that so-called grunge bands achieved in the early '90s, Arcade Fire has topped the billboard charts, sold hundreds of thousands of records, and gained a deeply devoted fanbase. The band played Merriweather Post Pavilion with Spoon last Friday, and freelance photographer Stephanie Breijo and I headed out to Columbia, Md., to catch the show and discuss Arcade Fire's cultural import.
Ryan: So, when did you first hear Arcade Fire? I had a friend excitedly burn me a copy of their first EP after seeing them open for someone (Unicorns, perhaps? I can't really recall). He was (rightly) convinced that the band would get huge. I remember liking "No Cars Go," but I wasn't sure why he thought they would get huge. I think I later spoke with Eric Axelson—who is now a recurring character in these recaps, apparently—who had played with Arcade Fire while he was in Maritime and said they put on a really impressive live show. All this to say: It seems like they were hitting on something powerful even before the Pitchfork review.
Stephanie: I actually didn't actually hear their EP until well after I fell in love with Funeral. I remember driving around San Diego right around my first year of college, being glued to this fantastic alt-rock radio station that, fortuitously, played "Rebellion (Lies)," and that was it. I had no idea what it was or where it came from, just that I had to hear more. Immediately. Of course as soon as I heard it, they were everywhere; Pitchfork, Coachella, even my favorite show Six Feet Under. Everywhere. And I didn't mind.
I went through a phase where I'd put a song from that album on almost every mix I'd make for a friend. You know, come to think of it, I put a song off Funeral on a mix for a boyfriend about a year ago. His response was something along the lines of, "Yeah, Arcade Fire's okay but they sounds just like all those other indie dance bands." We are no longer together.
Ryan: I can't say I share your deep-felt passion exactly, but I am pretty stoked to hear "Rebellion (Lies)" in person. There are actually more Spoon songs that I'm stoked to hear than there are AF songs. Britt Daniel can write a single like nobody's business. Of course, they might not be quite as epic in-person as Arcade Fire; they certainly don't play as many instruments. Have you heard the newest Spoon album?
Stephanie: Why indeed I have, Ryan. While it's a far cry from Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, it's a logical progression and I love their differences; I find new reasons to love Transference with each listen. And while I've never seen Spoon live, I hear they put on a great show. I'm seeing a lot of dancing in our not-too-distant future.
Ryan: Spoon certainly played well, but I wish we had caught more from their new album. Damn that traffic. Britt Daniel looked fancy enough in his all-white getup. Their minimalist grooves don't exactly lend themselves to large outdoor gatherings, but at least the weird noisy bits were awesomely loud. "The Ghost of You Lingers" was an unexpected highlight for me, especially with the addition of some odd drum fills at the end.
Stephanie: While I fear we missed an unfortunately large chunk of their set, I was glad we caught any of it because it really was fun. I am sad that we missed the first-three-songs-in-the-set photography window, so closeups of the snazzy suit were not possible. But what we did hear was exactly what I expected–energetic and heartfelt with a lot of love from an adoring audience. The show was intimate, maybe too intimate for the lawn-seated crowd–but they certainly kicked it up a notch with that horn section at the end. Speaking of audience adoration, how about that Arcade Fire set? Lots of dancing, lots of hands-in-the-air clapping; I'd venture to say lots if voices lost this morning.
Ryan: Adulation certainly peaked during Arcade Fire. That band's music means a lot to people, apparently. Which, during the high points, I could totally understand. I found their performance of "Haiti" to be really moving, what with Régine Chassagne thrusting a Haitian flag toward her heart over and over. Certain recent events obviously make the song more powerful in context, but they really stepped up their own passion and exuberance as well.It's a shame about the mix, though. The sound was all bass-heavy, and it was often hard to discern what the strings and accordions and such were playing. Still, their visual theatrics were impressive even when the sonic issues were disappointing. What did you think—did they live up to their acclaim?
Stephanie: I've always heard Arcade Fire knows how to put on a good show, though I was never told exactly why. And while I'm not sure I was as consistently enraptured as most of the crowd seemed to be, I do believe the performance lived up to the hype. Their energy was high and they all seemed to be at the top of their game; the light show was well executed, and the footage of band members layered over shots of the crowd really made for a more intimate performer-fan experience.
When they closed their encore with "Wake Up," everyone was practically screaming those "aaahhhhh-ahhhhhhs!!!" Hands in the air, heads tilted back–everyone seemed to respond to the audience interaction, the crowd surfing, etc. despite the terrible mix. All in all, it was a great bill, and while nothing blew me away, it was a great experience with some strong performances. Was there anything you wished you could have seen? Any song left unheard?
Ryan: The encore was basically a wild and passionate big tent revival for a lot of folks, which is also how I imagine a Bruce Springsteen show would be (one day I'll see the Boss in person... one day). I was a little surprised they didn't play "Black Mirror," and I'd be curious to see a live take on the haunting, "My Body Is A Cage." Maybe they only play that one when they have a pipe organ handy? In any case, they tackled all the big ones. I'd imagine they plan on closing every set for the rest of their career with "Wake Up," for better or worse—the blessing and curse of having a hit.I was struck by how many middle-aged couples were hanging out around where we were. They were really losing themselves in the show, too. The band has certainly expanded far beyond the scope of Pitchfork's regulars. I wonder what it is about Arcade Fire's music that has such a broad appeal—the always-pulsing kick drum driving the grandiose sound? The lyrical exploration of suburban youth? The unlikely spectacle of eight different Canadians all swapping instruments and vocal duties? Or maybe people just really love accordions?
Stephanie: Who doesn't love some good ol' accordion? (Communists.) Yeah, I noticed the outliers in what I had previously thought of as Arcade Fire's fanbase. They were both around where we were and even down in the trenches when I was taking pictures. I can't place what it is about Arcade Fire that draws such a spectrum of concertgoers–and maybe it is that steady pulsing of the kick drum—but I know that when I listen to them, I'm reminded that I'm young and alive.
Photos by Stephanie Breijo