Live Review: Arcade Fire / Phantogram at KeyArena 10/15

all photos by Matthew B. Thompson (view set)

Like a kind of watershed moment, there are live show experiences before seeing Arcade Fire and live show experiences after seeing Arcade Fire. They’re really a gauge for everything now. A religious experience whether you’re religious or not. A spiritual “Wake Up” call. A concerted church. An eidetic ecstasy. Call it whatever you want! It’s been this way, more or less, since their Funeral days back in 2005. And even in those days, the Montreal cadre had David Bowie and David Byrne reveling at their talent-and-energy-bursting shows. Iconic shows where they demonstrably broke the fourth wall, demonstrably redefined the kinship of kinetic energy, and demonstrably raptured the souls of their cultish, devoted fanbase. 

Like any good memory, you want to relive it as often as possible. October 15th’s show at KeyArena was easily one of those memories for the intergenerational crowd. I literally sat next to a 60+-year-old couple who sang their hearts out to “No Cars Go” while simultaneously seeing a just-able-to-stand toddler (with a guardian) dancing in the standing GA section. Both very charming in their own right.

But let’s not get too far ahead.

Phantogram

Before the choir of fire brought down the house we, of course, had the dark, electro-pop persuasions of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter of New York’s Phantogram. With pulsating e-instrumentation, overdrive guitar swells, trip-hop explosions (both with on-stage and programmed beats), and frenetically choreographed lighting, the outfit opened the show with stunning allure. Sarah Barthel strutted around, clad head-to-toe in all white — leather jacket with fringe (almost down to the floor) and all — belting out her hard-hitting melodies beautifully, sometimes while grooving and slaying some bass. Halfway through their set, Barthel mentioned how rad it was that they were able to open for one of their favorite bands of all time, which naturally continued to stoke the fire all the way through to them closing with their eurythmic, trance-inducing single “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” off their 2016 album Three.

When it was Arcade Fire’s turn they turned the whole arena on its head from the start to finish. The wedded bandleaders Régine Chassagne and Win Butler are about as sharp as lyricsmiths as alt-pop, indie rock songwriters come. 

One of the strengths that you can attribute Arcade Fire’s success to is their attention to detail as a well-conceptualized band that is playfully aware of their unapologetic brand and artistic direction. They’ve always been there to hold up the “Black Mirror,” critique society and politics, scrutinize religion, poke fun at themselves, and dig up the dirt on the larger ideologies (and ideologues) at hand. A song and album like Neon Bible (happy 10th anniversary!) does just that, especially with their 1-866-NEON-BIBLE gimmick when the album came out, which they nostalgically had up on the jumbotron in retro style before their set.

Other pre-set, jumbotron antics included: “Creature Comfort” cereal, USB spinners, Everything Now insignia circulating in the digital ad space near the top tiers of the arena, and a zany, cowboy-hat-wearing announcer with a cosmos-rendered face set in Death Valley that would pop up on the jumbo screen hollering wacky stuff like, “How will you remember the concert if you don’t have a souvenir. Your memory ain’t what it used to be. Yahoooooo. Bew Bew Bew (laser gun noises).” It was hard not to take it as a deliberate and satirical stab at consumer culture and the ad infinitum of the Information Age.

Before they even emerged from the main floor corridors, they had a cacophonous, fantasia-like remix of classical music, cartoon noises, theme songs, and “Wake Up” whoas. That overture gradually decayed and went straight into the band coming out like wrestlers to a German techno-like MC howling, “Ladies and gentle, on your feet…It’s time now for your main event. A special heavyweight contest. Not available on pay-per-view, HBO, or Showtime. In the right corner representing Canada, the USA, and Haiti, weighing at 2100 lbs collectively…” — you get the picture.

As they walked through the crowd to get up to their wrestling ring stage, the alpenglow of “Everything_Now (continued)” slowly started to rise. Once they all (eight strong!) got on stage they blasted right into their 2017 Everything Now title track showing off their signature stage calisthenics of members running around, catchy melodies that you can’t get out of your head, banging freestanding drum toms, and utilizing the whole terrain of their platform. This time around they had a square 360º stage, nestled in the middle of the arena, which even had it’s own lifted center drum stage that would mechanically spin around, sometimes with Win Butler powerstancing at the top leaning on his white-glossed piano, and sometimes with multiple drummers rotating like a carousel.

The first third of their set was a smattering of warm-ups from their orchestral oeuvre: “Signs of Life,” “Rebellion (Lies),” “Here Comes the Night Time,” and “Put Your Money On Me” — some of their most dance-crazed deliverables. About fifty minutes in was one of those momentous game changers that differentiates an Arcade Fire show from so many other shows. 2017 marks the 10th anniversary of one of their (yes, multiple) magnum opuses, Neon Bible, their sophomore album. As the next song began to segue, Will Butler (holding drum above) subtly keyed the three-note hook for “Neon Bible” for about ten seconds and while doing that the whole arena, in popcorn fashion, became purely candescent with white smartphone flashlights (like old school lighters). It was like some kind of zealot tradition or inside secret for that song that gave you chills just watching such a mind-etching éclat. It was magic. It was also one, of many, songs that they worked in congregational catharsis for the hook of a song, which they knew everyone would sing along in unison as the band faded out so that the crowd could be amplified with their thousands of acoustic voices.

The larger-than-life magic continued as they transitioned into the ending track on Neon Bible, “My Body is a Cage.” At that point the ropes of the wrestling ring had been taken down, however, the 360º stage was then theatrically caged in epic white lights from huge light fixtures suspended very high above the ground that looked like a larger version of the wrestling ring with four rows of horizontal beams boxing in the band. It made for quite the miraculous mise en scéne for that song.

The hymnal ballad acted as a nice breather to ramp up into a couple of their most anticipated, high-energy anthems. “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” — first track on their debut Funerals. “The Suburbs” — where Régine Chassagne and Jeremy Gara duel drummed, and the crowd sang the song’s coda. “Ready to Start.” “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” — where Régine danced everywhere with pom poms. And “Reflektor” — where Régine went dancing out into the crowd with one of  their realtime iPhones projecting onto the big screen. Just to note, throughout the show the distorted special effects and editing layered over the realtime video of the band on the screen was one of the most jaw-dropping components.

Win Butler dedicated “The Suburbs” to people like David Bowie, Prince, and Kurt Cobain who reached them in the suburbs to let them there was a better world out there. He also took a minute to say how a dollar from every ticket sold would go to Partners in Health to help provide health care for people in Rwanda and Haiti. It wasn’t his first sagacious soapbox. There were a few others. On the day of their show they were advocating on Facebook about mental health and de-escalation training for WA police stating, “Keep an eye out for volunteers petitioning from De-Escalate Washington outside of tonight’s show at Key Arena!” Win Bulter also went on a apoplectic rant earlier in the set about how Trump is trying to deport legally documented Haitians, plus added an addendum to a line in “Here Comes the Nighttime” saying “‘It’s behind the gate / they won’t let you in’… if you’re Haitian or Mexican” — which made people roaringly erupt.

The seamless stamina that this crew has is unreal (and if you’re still reading this review then your stamina should also be acknowledged). The energy was exponential at this point. They plowed through “Afterlife,” “Creature Comfort” with precision and ended their official set with the Funeral‘s epic “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” where Régine was using spoons to hit wine bottles of different pitches to play the song’s main, chime-like riff. “Last chance!,” Win Butler says towards the end of the song to make sure everyone exorcised all emotional energy that needs to be exorcised without regret. The build-up ends and the members crawl under the stage. Fog beings to billow more and more, of course signaling an encore. They kick off their return with “We Don’t Deserve Love,” where Win Butler elusively appears among the standing patrons (again with iPhone cameraperson) and walks back up to the stage. Like the image of the snake eating its tail or M.C. Escher’s Drawing Hands, Arcade Fire’s Everything Now album ends like it started and loops into itself. So for their live show, they played a more acoustic, less electronic version of “Everything Now (continued)” to bring it all back home to a full circle.

Almost…

What’s an Arcade Fire show without “Wake Up”? All it takes is a few simple chords to prime the crowd and a “1, 2, 3, 4″ count-in for a packed house at KeyArena to be filled with possibly the largest wall of elated “whoas” ever to have happened in there. It is truly a tremendous sight and feeling to behold. “Wake Up” is easily one of their defining watershed qualities to the live show experience and if you’re still asleep to the phenomenon that is Arcade Fire: “Children, wake up.”

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