A video of a female televangelist preceded Arcade Fire at the Greek Theater Tuesday night. The stem-winding preacher favored some overheated, odd metaphors, including one involving a “holy ghost enema,” until she hit her dual themes. “Time is running out,” she repeated, alternating with “It’s starting to get revved up.” That is probably the best distillation of the Montreal-based collective’s appeal: In the face of an onrushing apocalypse — death, terrorism, needless suffering, senseless war, unresponsive authority — the sanest response is to find joy and community in music.
It’s a mantle that must be tough to shoulder for even the most tireless road warrior, and it showed as Tuesday night saw what was probably the band’s most restrained local performance.
Evenly split between “Funeral,” Arcade Fire’s haunting 2004 debut, and this year’s even darker-toned “Neon Bible” (both released by North Carolina indie Merge Records), the set only rarely achieved the kinetic thrills of the band’s stunning performance at Coachella last month, its 2005 Hollywood Bowl debut or the club dates at Troubadour or Spaceland. Previous Arcade Fire perfs seemed to have the power to levitate an audience, but at the Greek, there seemed to be less at stake; instead of transcendent fervor, Arcade Fire was simply a band providing an evening of entertainment.
Which is not to say that Arcade Fire is anything but a very fine band. Live, one can really appreciate the elegant arrangements — the strings, horns and various accordions, hurdy gurdys, mandolins, dobros and keyboards sound like a street-corner Salvation Army band playing early Philip Glass. But the energy and heedless risk taking that made earlier shows so memorable was dissipated and pushed to the edges.
The 10-piece band still switches instruments throughout the show, happily shouting lyrics even when there’s no microphone nearby, and percussionists Will Butler and Jeremy Gara continue to leap around tossing drums and banging on any surface available during “Neighborhood #2 (Laika),” but the energy fades for slower tunes such as “Haiti,” “Neon Bible” and the Regine Chassagne showcase “In the Backseat.”
But when Arcade Fire fires on all cylinders, the results remain swoon-inducing. During “Intervention,” “(Antichrist Television Blues)” and “Oceans of Noise,” a trio of Springsteen-inflected tunes from the new album, the band rediscovered its unique alchemy, moving from the pipe organ-driven despair (“Every spark of friendship and love will die,” Win Butler sobs in his Bowie/David Byrne/Ian McLachlan croon) to panicky media saturation in “Oceans.”
The band gathered power on the set-ending surge of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” “Rebellion (Lies)” and the jittery kids-on-the-run rock of “Keep the Car Running,” and “Wake Up” hit the balance of pain and joy the introduction promised.