Grand Prospect Hall, Brooklyn, New York
July 27, 2017
The knives are out for Arcade Fire. Reviews of their ambitious but uneven new album, “Everything Now,” are mixed at best. The slightly petulant air of their jokey response to a negative review of that album (the band wrote a mock-review mocking that review) has gotten a mixed response as well. And even this night’s show — an Apple Music livestream staged at a gloriously glitzy 125-year-old theater in Brooklyn that usually is the site of weddings and graduations — was soundly mocked for a dress-code-dictating email to ticketholders that was sent not by the band or Apple but (sources say) by the ticketing company handling the show.
But perhaps most of all, this is a Grammy-winning band that has suffered surprisingly little critical negativity in the dozen-odd years since their debut “Funeral” was feted with fevered hosannahs from the Pitchfork set. Surely a group of this stature and longevity is long overdue for some comeuppance. The Internet smells blood!
But then you’re in the balcony of this gloriously kitschy theater on a sweltering July night — a place where “We make your dreams come true!” according to a commercial familiar to anyone who watches New York City TV; a place where Matt, the 80-something neighbor on your Brooklyn block, saw Sammy Davis Jr. perform in the 1940s — and the most arena-worthy rock band of the past 15 years is mesmerizing a couple thousand enraptured fans with zero props or special effects, and it’s hard to see what the meh-sayers are complaining about.
That’s not to say the less-endearing songs on the new album sound better in a live setting — they don’t. But over the course of the two-hour/20-song set, the strongest of the “Everything Now” tracks hold their own amid the highlights from the band’s formidable catalog like “Rebellion (Lies),” “The Suburbs,” “Ready to Start,” “Reflektor” and “No Cars Go.” (This show was special for another reason: frontman Win Butler stopped the band mid-song, saying, “That’s the first time we’ve ever messed up ‘No Cars Go’!” before starting over.)
And while the band is always masterful at engaging fans during its gigs, the intimacy of this one made it even more so. The musicians were set up in the round on the square stage, so that a couple of members were facing each side of the audience at all times. Butler wandered into the pit surrounding the stage several times, twice borrowing one of the video cameras from a tech and turning it on crowd members; at the end of the show keyboardist/singer Regine Chassagne went into the pit and gave hugs to several fans. Violinist Sarah Neufeld led approximately 80 percent of one side of the crowd in a wave during “Neon Bible,” which sounds corny but was actually pretty cool. Butler also spoke to the crowd several times, usually giving thanks for the years of support but also referencing President Trump’s ban on transgender members of the military — “Trans people are not disturbances,” he said. “I wish this whole thing was a joke, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Even at this show, the air of irony that the band’s been putting on — probably in response to their usual U2-sized earnestness — was a little much. The new album comes accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek branding campaign, and the bandmembers were all wearing “Everything Now” shirts or jackets, at least until they got too hot (the evening was so muggy that a fog hung inside the venue by the end of the show). Banners hung from the balcony bearing the titles of each song on the new album — fans in the “Chemistry” side were given bright pink tank tops with the song title on them; fans in the “Creature Comfort” side were given custom-made cereal boxes that some of them threw onto the stage when the band played the song. A couple of boxes almost conked bandmembers in the head (how’s that for irony?).
After closing the main set with the galvanizing song that started it all — “Wake Up,” the first track on their 2004 debut, “Funeral” — the band came back for a two-song acoustic encore. For “Neon Bible,” Win asked for the house lights to be dimmed and the band performed illuminated by the lights from fans phones, and for the closer, the “Everything Now (Continued)” snippet that opens and closes the new album, the band filed offstage together, still singing the song and playing acoustic instruments, until they left the hall.
As “Everything Now” shows all too vividly, Arcade Fire are going through an awkward phase, a kind of mid-life crisis — a lot like the one U2 endured in the 1990s — where they’re tired of being earnest anthem-bearers and are trying to expand the template of what they do. And in the process, they’re sometimes trying to be something they’re really not (like funny and funky). But as Thursday night’s show proved, when you put them in a hot room with a couple thousand fans, you see the world-beating band they really are.