Arcade Fire are unquestionably the current stadium kings of our post-LCD Soundsystem college radio world. In fact, playing on the same Jazz Fest stage as Bruce Springsteen just one day later, there were murmurs of Win Butler and company being “The Boss” for a new generation. Springsteen has his appeal to the bluecollar American ideal; Arcade Fire write songs dripping with nostalgia for more innocent ages (which is both a very Millennial-friendly idea and Buzzfeed’s potential mission statement).
It’s not so odd then that Arcade Fire have constantly faced questions of authenticity. It may have started immediately after their 2007 LP, Neon Bible, famously inspired the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones to question if the band’s sound (and its lack of African-American music influences) was emblematic of a larger indie rock issue. Their next album was the Grammy-conquering Suburbs that drew the who the fuck are they backlash. And last year’s odd-mixed reaction to Reflektor—its new sound, its viral marketing/secret show campaign, its CMJ showcase—ushered in an era where Arcade Fire fatigue was seemingly in vogue.
Seeing the band live, however, only confirms one thing: Arcade Fire fatigue fatigue should be a thing.
One live show can’t answer everyone’s questions or silence all the criticisms, but Arcade Fire more than satisfied the biggest crowd gathered on Jazz Fest’s last day. They performed for every second of their hour-and-a-half allotment and then spilled overtime sounds throughout the fairground. It was the exclamation point to the band’s most recent US tour; exhibit A in the case that Arcade Fire are merely a band genuinely trying to make music both they and we the audience can share in. Plus, it doubled as a heartfelt love letter to a city the band clearly feels connected to.
The “I ❤ NOLA” theme was not limited to a mere shout of “How are you New Orleans?” It started when Arcade Fire entered the stage to “Iko Iko,” a traditional Mardi Gras Indians’ tune, and ended when second-lining (NOLA-ese for a social parade) their hit “Wake Up” across the fairgrounds with the local, all-female Pinettes Brass Band. In between, Arcade Fire praised the city every chance they got. Before introducing their ode to mundane life (“The Suburbs”): “This is one of the last places in America that its own place; for the rest of us there’s this.” And when reflecting on the end of their US tour, they insisted on Jazz Fest as a final destination (“The best way to end a tour is to come to New Orleans,” Butler added). Long after the group finally put their instruments away, Butler could even be found taking pictures with fans and getting one selfie of his own with a Mardi Gras Indian Chief.
But the group’s biggest homage to New Orleans was the reverence it showed for both the event and its prominence within local culture. “There’s more talent in the Gospel Tent than on this whole stage,” Butler said before “Wake Up.” “We’re humbled to play this festival, may it always be about musicians.” And if you were willing to pass up the band’s celebratory parade off stage (or at least quickly move on), the talent Butler talked about was evident. En route to the Gospel Tent, you had to pass the Jazz Tent playing host to Chick Corea and his ensemble. It was a group so talented even the auxiliary percussionist took solos, mind-blowingly syncopated solos. And down the pathway in the referenced Gospel Tent, the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church Mass Choir was closing with a rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” No one was taking that chorus down an octave.
While it was a nice sentiment, Arcade Fire belong here—both at a prominent slot in Jazz Fest and in their position as the definitive live rock act today. From a performance point of view, you can’t ask the band to do much more (sans play tinier spaces, but see the CMJ-haters up top). Their sound is strong, skilled, and controlled, allowing for various facets of songs to come forward when necessary (say, the bass line in “We Exist” or a violin/xylophone take on “Antichrist Television Blues”). The set list spans their entire career and not just what’s recent; 16 songs were performed in total and each of the four Arcade Fire albums had three to five songs featured. And visually, the band’s energy and theatrics have been perfected over years of learning the stadium set dynamics. The thought put into things like when to enter the crowd or what kind of additional visuals to use (here the recently remade giant paper mache heads) is evident.
Beyond that, the band truly does try to bring a club aesthetic to a large space. Every Arcade Fire show produces a slew of Tweets and blog posts freaking out over special guest appearances, and Owen Pallet provided the highest-profile Jazz Fest cameo. The band still embraces covers (some New Order slipped into the set), and they take time to banter in between sets. Reminiscent of the most intimate of small show sets, the talk usually finds its way toward one cause or another that the band feels strongly about. At Jazz Fest, that was their latest shot at VIP festival culture (during “Here Comes The Nightime”—Heaven’s a place, behind the gate, that won’t let you in, unless you have $900) and a supportive song name for gay marriage (“We Exist” was introduced as “Marriage is a Human Right”).
Critical adoration is a weird thing. It’ll come and go depending on what someone has done lately. Arcade Fire, like Springsteen (meh, by the way) or any other creative entity, will never please everyone in this sense. But at Jazz Fest, Arcade Fire demonstrated that doesn’t matter. So long as bands like this can find artistic communities they feel connected to like New Orleans, there will be moments of brilliance that further endear existing fans and forever change the opinions of some new ones. There will be more moments like this; Arcade Fire are a good bet to be involved.
1) Here Comes The Night Time
2) Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
3) Rebellion (Lies)
4) The Suburbs
5) Ready To Start
6) Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
7) “Marriage Is A Human Right” (aka We Exist)
9) Antichrist Television Blues
10) No Cars Go
12) Afterlife (at times featuring lyrics from New Order’s “Age of Consent”)
13) Sprawl II
15) Normal Person
16) Wake Up