The Bowl’s World Festival opened with a North America-centric view of the world — a couple of New Yorkers, an oversized Canadian act and a San Francisco marching band — and a bracing collision of showmanship and substance. Si*Se provided cool rhythmic dinner music; Arcade Fire delivered a blistering, theatrical set; and David Byrne managed to cover his 30 years of music-making with pizzazz and potency.
Bill was heavy on the hip quotient: Montreal’s Arcade Fire, which has made one album for indie Merge Records, has seen its buzz leap from indie circles to the mainstream; Byrne, the former Talking Heads leader, has become enshrined as an aloof yet perpetually cool demi-god. Byrne curated Sunday’s bill, and after seeing Arcade Fire fuel its pummeling brand of art rock with some fun-loving theatricality, one wondered if Byrne knew what he was getting into. Seems he did.
Byrne’s last record, the 15-month-old “Grown Backwards” (Nonesuch), found the singer quaintly toying with string arrangements and opera, and he brought along the six-member Tosca Strings to flesh out his bass and percussion band. But his 75 minutes onstage were spent covering the breadth of his career and bringing out new, often rough, textures in material that rolled from “Psycho Killer” and “I Zimbra” to the Heads’ pop days with “Road to Nowhere” to a collaboration with Ryuchi Sakamoto, 1999’s “Psychedelic Afternoon,” and a handful of his solo goodies (“Finite = Alright,” “Like Humans Do”).
It seemed as if things couldn’t get any better after Byrne brought out the four guys in Arcade Fire to shout-sing “Naive Melody.” But then Byrne, looking rather natty in a buttoned-up pink suit, announced the arrival of the Extra Action Marching Band, which made its way through the Bowl’s aisles to join Byrne onstage for Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In.” He immediately topped that with a pounding version of “Burning Down the House,” in which the flag teams stripped down to sequined bikinis and shimmied as the drummers ripped loose; and if that weren’t enough, Byrne indeed brought down the house by improbably performing Beyonce’s hit “Crazy in Love” with the nine percussionists and the 15 horn players. Simply dazzling.
But he needed to be to extend the energy of Arcade Fire, which is startlingly fully formed in its vision for such a young act. Its songs draw on a slew of alternative sources — a bit of the Clash’s “Hitsville U.K.,” the tone of Bjork’s voice, using the bass to lead a melody as a number of ’80s electronic acts did — but Arcade Fire is as capable of churning out a Technicolor ballad that flows cohesively into booming conclusion (“Crown of Love”) as a straightforward rock anthem (“Rebellion (Lies),” “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)”).
Its show, however, is a frenetic delight. Musicians mug each other while drumming on the motorcycle helmets they’re wearing; Regine Chassagne sings, plays accordion, drums and xylophone and, to get the job done, has to run from instrument to instrument; and Win Butler, who lords over it all, is a steady front man who knows how to play straight while shenanigans surround him. Their album “Funeral” can feel disjointed as it moves from piece to piece; their 45-minute set, on the other hand, was an impressive and cohesive effort that should bring them a bounty of new fans when they return.
Each act featured violinists, but only Si*Se used it as a consistent lead instrument. While Arcade Fire reminded the older members of the crowd of the Talking Heads’ large bands in the early ’80s, Si*SE came off as a version of “It’s a Beautiful Day” for the trip-hop set. Not a bad thing, but limiting.