Arcade Fire: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, Asheville, NC

WHAT A difference a couple of years makes. Or do they?

The last time Arcade Fire played Asheville, in early 2005, they sold out the 940-person capacity Orange Peel club. At the time the Canadian outfit was in the process of blowing up, thanks to their swiftly-selling full-length debut Funeral (Merge Records) and, in particular, their growing reputation as a fearsome live act. Since then, of course, the career arc has charted a series of enviable milestones – multiple awards nominations, including a Grammy nod; celebrity endorsements from the likes of Bowie, U2 and Coldplay; consistent sellouts of ever-larger venues – that might conspire to force a lesser band into capitulating to the forces of ego and the trappings of stardom.

Arcade Fire’s not like most bands, however. For even though the group’s sophomore effort Neon Bible has already sold, by Merge’s estimation, about 220,000 copies since its March 6 release, and nearly every date of the Bible tour (which started May 1 in Atlanta and wraps June 2 in Berkeley) was an immediate sellout, there’s an impossible-to-miss vibe about them that speaks to their sincerity and genuineness as performers and as believers in rock ‘n’ roll’s soul-nurturing qualities.

Opening for the second night of the tour was Brooklyn’s the National. (Arcade Fire hand-picked that group, plus St. Vincent, Handsome Furs and Electrelane, to be their opening acts, each one getting a leg lasting about a week.) With their latest album Boxer currently in stores, the Brooklyn six-piece wasn’t about to waste its opportunity, and the 45-minute set proved they were up to the task. Though crowded to the edge of the stage – Arcade Fire carries a lot of gear on the road – the band bore down and delivered a rousing show heavy on ’80s Rough Trade/4 AD, postpunk atmosphere, the vocalist in particular channeling, at times, Morrissey, Michael Stipe and Modern English’s Robbie Grey. In short, an apt choice to warm up the crowd for the headliners.

Not that the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium patrons, some 2400 strong, specifically needed any warming up. Right from the get-go, following a quirky yet subliminally resonant intro that featured a projected film clip of a fired-up female televangelist exhorting her audience, Arcade Fire had the audience in full devotional mode. Neon Bible leadoff track ‘Black Mirror’ set a suitably throbbing, pulsing pace – on record, it’s moody and hypnotic, but in concert it attains an additional elegiac, anthemic tenor carrying sleek overtones of classic Roxy Music.

Did someone say “anthemic”? The second song was ‘No Cars Go’, originally appearing on Arcade Fire’s self-titled 2003 EP and subsequently re-cut with a vastly expanded arrangement for Neon Bible. Long a concert mainstay for the band (it was performed at the ’05 Asheville show, in fact), it’s also undergone a sonic expansion for the stage, a big, room-filling, ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’-styled mega-anthem that literally defies you not to stand up and sing along at the top of your lungs.

The visual presentation was no less striking. A giant “neon bible” derived from the album cover’s artwork hung over the stage, with lighting motifs alternating between a severe, stark red/yellow theme and a more contemplative-spiritual pink/purple theme. Five tall rods, each glowing a neon fire red, rose up from the front of the stage, while just slightly above the bandmembers’ heads a series of five circular screens were erected upon which the aforementioned televangelist clip was projected as well as live images of the band itself. (Turns out those small, inconspicuous cameras had been mounted on the glowing rods in order to capture tight shots of the musicians playing.) As those images were in black and white, they provided a unique contrast to all the colors going off; it was almost like viewing vintage kinescopes, or old television programs from the Fifties.

And the seven-member group, expanded to ten for touring purposes (two horn players plus a second violinist), made the most of the visual setting, bobbing and weaving and darting about onstage, swapping instruments both between and during songs. Without question Arcade Fire is aware of being observed by a crowd and has already learned how to make those occasionally exaggerated stage gestures that reach the back of a large hall.

Other highlights? ‘Intervention’ was even more massive than its Neon Bible counterpart – the band has brought a giant pipe organ on the road, if you can believe that little transportation expense, and Régine Chassagne appeared dwarfed by it when she stood at the keyboard – yet its hymnal elements, abetted by a sturdy guitar riff, made it strikingly intimate, too. ‘Neon Bible’, by contrast, was gentle and swaying, the violinists conjuring aural images of a baroque string quartet. ‘(Antichrist Television Blues)’ had a strummy lilt and a churning propulsion that was positively Springsteenian, Win Butler delivering one of his most urgently yearning vocals of the evening: “Dear God, I’m a good Christian man,” he sung, as sweet backing harmonies swirled around him, adding, pointedly, “in your glory, I know you understand.”

And Funeral buzz track ‘Power Out’ remains a stomping, hooting, galvanizing, party-like-it’s-1999 call-to-arms. Even though earlier in the evening Butler had beckoned the audience to get up and come down and bum-rush the aisles (which it did, much to the confusion and dismay of the sweet little grey-haired lady ushers staffing the venue), ‘Power Out’ prompted a huge surge forward; there were even sporadic outbreaks of crowd-surfing in front of the stage during the song.

Ninety minutes and two encores after Arcade Fire took the stage, it departed, got on its touring bus, and drove off into the night. Unlike the ’05 club gig, there was no percussion-wielding, New Orleans-styled second line march into the crowd. But nobody seemed to mind how, nowadays, the band-audience demarcation is more deliberately – physically, even – defined. In Arcade Fire’s big-hearted sound and open-armed demeanor resides a genuine band-audience bond.

So do a couple of years actually make a difference? Certainly, to paraphrase a great philosopher, Arcade Fire has indeed blowed up real good. Yet all the qualities – the drive and talent, the charisma and musicality, etc. – were in place from the start, as anyone who caught the band during its initial ascent will tell you. In 2007 the band has simply refined and elaborated upon those qualities, instinctively adapting to the logistics of bigger venues, bigger audiences, bigger expectations. Arcade Fire isn’t reinventing the pop wheel here: the band’s genius lies in how it collapses and synthesizes several decades’ worth of anthemic rock and makes it all feel fresh for a new era.

“Between the click of the light and the start of the dream” indeed – destiny awaits these young musicians.

© Fred MillsHarp, May 2007

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