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The Arcade Fire Achieve Perfection at Coachella

Posted in: General by Ian Fowles on April 28, 2011

Something happens when you are in the California desert at night, surrounded by tens of thousands of your closest friends, watching and listening to The Arcade Fire . Something magical. Something mystical. The warm breeze grazes your face as the volume of the music causes your whole body to vibrate with every beat. At points, the crowd is singing louder than the amplified band and when you are reveling in the sublimity of the moment, suddenly hundreds of white beach balls drop from the canopy over the top of the stage. This waterfall of translucent orbs then begins to change colors as the band changes notes. The sights and sounds are overwhelming as you embrace a loved one, and for a few minutes time slows down, nothing else matters, and no words can really ever describe the experience.

Someone has said that “talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” However much this may ring true, I still think we have to try, knowing that even an audio or video recording will often pale in comparison to the live concert experience. Like many of you, being a musician myself who has played and seen hundreds of shows, it is hard not to become critical of all aspects of the production and performance of a live concert. Perhaps even too critical – something like the proverbial jaded record store clerk. [This might fall under what The Hold Steady calls a Rock N' Roll problem.] That night however, everything was executed with such precision that the only applicable word I could find to describe it was “perfect.” However, the perfection that night extended beyond mere technical accuracy. It encompassed the totality of the experience.

It was Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler’s 31st birthday that night, and the usually stoic and somber vocalist was visibly moved by the audience and the spectacle he beheld from the stage. A smile can be seen to grace his face for almost all of the final encore song as he watches his wife/co-lead vocalist Régine Chassagne dance as she belts out a hauntingly beautiful melody. Their love on stage and the appreciation repeatedly given to the crowd fostered an air of positive energy felt by all. Some very open and heart felt comments about the set by those who were in attendance can be read on the youtube page for this and other videos posted of the song “Wake Up.” Observers talk about chills, goosebumps, crying, life altering moment, etc.

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In 2010 Rolling Stone dubbed The Arcade Fire “the new U2,” which is interesting considering U2 have more books written about them that aim at investigating their spirituality than perhaps any other single rock band. However, The Arcade Fire themselves swim even deeper in this sea of religious language and symbolism.

This is true not only in the music, lyrics, and visual art they create, but also in the outside reviews about it. For example, when they played two nights in L.A. in 2008, Los Angeles Times writer Richard Cromelin said “the musicians…were like a church choir maddened by rock ‘n’ roll, or a rock band endowed with a spiritual purpose.” He compared vocalist and frontman Win Butler to a “charismatic young Billy Graham. There is something evangelical in his intense delivery.” Cromelin claims that for The Arcade Fire this performance was an “overdue baptism as a large-theatre headliner in L.A., and the intense, cathartic performance” fostered a “sense of community.” This is all very interesting because the band was on tour supporting their album entitled Neon Bible that was recorded in a converted church outside of Montreal, Canada. [Michael J. Gilmour claims that they put forth their own jeremiad and parody of religion through this album.]

Richard Cromelin’s review could just as easily be applied to the band’s set at Coachella. But it brings up many questions. Was it a religious experience? Can a purely ‘secular’ experience of a loud rock concert be classified as religious? Often, when feeling this heightened level of emotion, people often reach for religious language as the only words capable of helping another understand the depth and impact of a given experience. Rock N’ Roll is no exception, and in fact it is quick becoming the rule among describing a concert experience [for example see Andy Greenwald’s Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003)]. Religious language abounds in concert and album reviews. Is it just emotion? Or perhaps legitimate religion? All I know is that whatever it can be labeled, for me that hour and a half was perfect.

Ian Fowles

Claremont, California

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