Arcade Fire's rousing set moves heaven and hell

March 20, 2007


Touring in support of their second full album, "The Neon Bible," Montreal's orchestral-pop heroes the Arcade Fire are arguably the most successful indie-rock band in the world today.

The husband-and-wife team of singers, songwriters and multi-instrumentalists Win Butler and Regine Chassagne and their eight versatile bandmates sold out a three-night stand at the Chicago Theatre in a matter of minutes. (The mini-residency began Friday and concludes Sunday.) Judging from the prices scalpers were charging for tickets that originally sold for $31 (with a dollar going to a charity fighting AIDS and hunger in Africa), the group easily could have done an additional three nights here, and the same has been true across the country.

While "The Neon Bible" was a bit of a letdown after 2004's thrilling breakthrough release "Funeral," which has sold more than 300,000 copies to date, many of the new songs sounded better in concert than on album, as is typical for this group, and Friday's performance offered ample evidence of why the band has reached such exalted heights.

Powerful 90-minute set
Entering from the rear of the theater and walking down the center aisle to take the stage, the instrument-swapping lineup suffered from a sketchy mix through the first few songs as they incorporated ornate and baroque touches such as hurdy-gurdy, mandolin, French horn, tuba, trombone, two violins and even a scaled-down pipe organ, in addition to indie rock's standard bass, drums, guitar and synthesizer.

But the rollicking, syncopated rhythmic undertow combined with the musicians' unflagging energy and relentless enthusiasm to carry things along until the sound problems were sorted out, and with only one notable misstep -- the dragging and maudlin "My Body is a Cage" -- the set consistently built momentum through 90 energizing minutes as one high point followed and topped another, including "No Cars Go," "The Well & the Lighthouse" and "Neighborhood #3 [Power Out]."

The conflict between spirituality and consumerism is one of the major themes running through "The Neon Bible," and Butler -- a born-and-raised Texan whose tall, gaunt frame and penchant for old-time clothing brings to mind a character from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" -- is a harsh critic of what he sees as the hypocrisy of organized religion.

"Workin' for the church while your life falls apart/Singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart," he howled in "Intervention," another of the evening's highlights, as the crowd clapped and sang along.

It's ironic, then, that the Arcade Fire's spirited, rousing and supremely celebratory show ultimately evoked nothing so much as an underground rock version of an old-time, gospel-tent revival meeting. Or maybe that was exactly the point.