Show Review: Arcade Fire with Calexico at The Greek Theater in Berkeley. 10/2/2010

by Jonathan Pirro on October 3, 2010

A million little gods (photo by Paige K. Parsons)

A million little gods (photo by Paige K. Parsons)

In today’s world of music where nearly anyone can slap together a laptop and a table of samplers to create a band, it’s always refreshing to see a band that goes beyond the simple four-piece duty of guitar/bass/drums/vocals and plays something on a much bigger scale. Even more of a treat is the chance to see two bands doing this, especially when the first band joins the headliners during the latter’s set. Take the lot of the musicians, give them two nights at Berkeley’s enormous Greek Theater, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a weekend. How best to ensure that you sell every ticket for both nights? Well, having the Montreal-based septet known as Arcade Fire might help speed up the process.

Of course, if you really want to get every single one of those seats, you’d best throw in an excellent opening band, and tonight’s selection of Tuscon’s mexi-rockers Calexico seemed to be the perfect choice. While not quite as wild and friendly as most of Arcade Fire’s songs, Calexico’s pieces draw their listeners in with their Spanish horns and grooving acoustic guitar tunes, while taking things to a higher plane with their special blend of traditional music and spacey, roomy indie rock. Oddly appropriate was a teaser performance of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” in the middle of the set; those who noticed cheered with great excitement and were even more enthused with the performance. Despite the muted and rather stationary lighting during their set, Calexico played a very gorgeous set and were met with wild cheers before they departed from the stage.

Calexico's setlist

Calexico's setlist

One thing about the Greek Theater that seems to prompt a wilder roar of excitement from the crowd is the fact that the house lights do not fade to black. One moment, they are there; the next, a pale blue light is bathing the stage, and the audience is finding themselves in near-total darkness. Such was the case tonight when the moment for Arcade Fire’s arrival became imminent; the band’s walk onstage was illuminated with a wall of yellowish lights at the back of the stage, which illuminated the entire set while keeping the band members and their instruments in total darkness. All it took were the opening notes of “Ready To Start” to kick the crowd into a bouncing, swaying mass; when the rest of the band kicked in after a short introduction, the lights onstage blazed to life, revealing the seven members of Arcade Fire in all of their glory.

With so many elements to their songs and so much precision required to make seven instruments all sit well together, it was truly incredible to watch every single member of Arcade Fire spend most of the set at a high level of energy. Singer and band leader Win Butler maintained most of the balance of the group, but also spent many songs jumping and swinging about onstage, and even jumped up and down atop the subwoofer at the edge of the stage that extended into the crowd. Win’s brother William was easily the most animated and fun to watch of the group; most songs saw him flailing wildly to the beat, often with a spare tom drum in his hand that he pounded at mercilessly — even when he was nowhere near a microphone. The performance of “Laika” saw William and Richard Perry trading duties on xylophone and tom drum, tossing sticks back and forth between each other while the band spent most of the song constantly airborne as they bounced around.

Possibly in an effort to one-up their fellow performers The Flaming Lips, who were still residing at the Fox Theater in Oakland that night, Arcade Fire’s stage setup was highly elaborate. Multiple risers for the drums and keyboards shot up around the stage, with panels of lights stuffed in underneath and behind every instrument and microphone. A large screen, built up behind the instruments in the style of a large roadside billboard, projected animations as well as images of the band shot from cameras on both sides of the stage. For most songs, nearly every light onstage — the bright yellows beneath the musicians, the pulsing strobes that bordered the stage above and on either side, and the colored lights around the billboard-screen — became wildly animated, accenting the onstage antics of the band as they threw themselves into each song with incredible energy.

The final element of Arcade Fire’s performance which was truly astounding to see was watching the band rotate musical duties from song to song. As if playing musical chairs onstage, the members changed instruments, positions, and even their states of energy onstage for each song. There was enough similarity from song to song to know that it was, indeed, the same band onstage, but the sheer variety of sounds that each member brought to an instrument onstage gave the sound a whole new level of intensity. Win Butler’s wife, RĂ©gine Chassagne, was alternately seen playing accordion, hurdy-gurdy, drums, keyboards, and even an organ as she hopped from place to place, and nearly every member of the band played just as varied a set of instruments. It was a true display of brilliant skill in performance to change up at the drop of a hat in the way that Arcade Fire is able to.

Is it necessary to say that the crowd ate up every moment of the show? While not as responsive to the new songs from The Suburbs as they were from the band’s previous two records, the crowd was wildly enthusiastic; the Greek Theater seemed to be twice as full as it was for Vampire Weekend, who had been there only a week before. Win introduced the final songs of the set, “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” and “Rebellion (Lies)” (which segued into one another) by shouting “oh, and here’s our hit song!”, to which the crowd responded with frenzied screams of approval. To bring a close to the night, the band returned for a delicate, moving performance of “Intervention”, followed by a positively magnificent spectacle in “Wake Up” which called the lights and cameras onto the entire crowd to watch them sing along. It took many long minutes following the final notes of the song for the crowd to finally stop cheering with glee, and even then, many were heard leaving the theater singing songs of the night together in droves.

Having always had a strange relationship with Arcade Fire, I was extremely happy to have finally seen them in concert. I have always grown tired and wary of a band if I hear their music hundreds of times over and over again on the radio or in other forms of media, and many of the tracks of their first record Funeral had had that effect on me; seeing these same songs performed live, however, was magnificent and gave me the musical closure I was seeking. The truly marvelous factor was the rotation of musical duties, and the undeterred energy of the band onstage for every single number of their set, which is not often seen in bands today — let alone a seven-piece musical collective that has enough staying power to always sell out the Greek Theater for weekends at a time.

Arcade Fire's setlist

Arcade Fire's setlist

Jonathan Pirro

Off-kilter multimedia enthusiast.

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