Arcade Fire keeps things lively


September 30, 2005


Given the specter of death that hangs over "Funeral," the much-praised 2004 debut by the Montreal-based orchestral pop band the Arcade Fire, the uplifting and celebratory nature of the nine-piece group's performances can come as a surprise.

Guitarist, vocalist and bandleader Win Butler (who grew up in Texas) and his wife, Regine Chassagne (whose family fled Haiti under Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier's dictatorship), drew inspiration for many of the songs on their successful indie bow from the rush of emotions following the deaths of several loved ones, including Chassagne's grandmother and Butler's grandfather (Alvino Rey, a composer and cult hero for fans of "Space Age bachelor pad" lounge music).

But in the venerated tradition of New Orleans' jazz funerals, the Arcade Fire's concerts champion life rather than dwelling on death. During a sold-out show at the Riviera Theatre on Wednesday, the band acknowledged the past but cheerfully looked toward the future. And it had much to celebrate.

The gig was the group's fifth appearance in Chicago since the release of "Funeral." During that time, it has risen from clubs like the Empty Bottle to becoming a featured performer at Lollapalooza to finally headlining theaters, and it has sold 200,000 copies of its debut. This show was part of a victory lap lauding those accomplishments, but several times during the 90-minute performance, Butler promised that his band wouldn't return until it had written "a million new songs -- 1 million!"

With the exceptions of a truncated version of Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" that served as an opener and a rousing mid-set cover of "Five Years" by David Bowie, all of the songs hailed from "Funeral." But the Riv show hardly seemed like a repeat. As the Bowie-sounding Butler and the Bjork-inflected Chassagne traded lead vocals, the group invested its songs with an intoxicating and infectious energy, transforming nearly every tune into a rousing irresistible anthem.

The band's live performances top the recording because the material benefits from a much more spirited attack, with many of the musicians pantomiming mock battles as they assault their instruments, and a more layered polyrhythmic approach, with several of the guitarists and keyboardists doubling on percussion in between the massive sing-along choruses. (They also indulge in a memorable set piece that finds two of them drumming on one another's heads while wearing motorcycle helmets.)

Another thing that distinguishes the Arcade Fire from the bevy of ork-pop bands that have proliferated in the indie underground is the fact that its members all genuinely can play their instruments, which include two violins and French horn. The energy and the level of musicianship never flagged, even when Chassagne took a turn on the drums.

As one crescendo followed another throughout the show, it hardly seemed possible that the group could build the excitement any higher during its encore. But like those marching bands at New Orleans funerals, the Arcade Fire ended the night by leaving the stage with its instruments, walking in a procession to the Riv lobby and finishing its last song as it was surrounded by throngs of exiting fans.

Opening the show were two fellow Montreal-based ork-pop acts that displayed many of the problems the headliner skillfully avoided. Led by Arcade Fire members Richard Reed Parry and Sarah Neufeld, the Belle Orchestre suffered from a lack of strong songwriting, while Wolf Parade, which records for Sub Pop, was dragged down by weak vocals and a reliance on synthesizer and theremin noise that distracted from the proceedings.