I WAS THERE: Arcade Fire Conquer Madison Square Garden, Including That 50-Something Dude In the Khaki Pants

Photos by Hobo

Words by Arye Dworken

The 50-something man sitting next to me on the subway was dressed in khaki dress pants with a polo shirt tucked in. He was wiping sweat from his balding scalp with a brown paisley hand towel while talking to his wife about indie rock.

“The first two albums were really championed by Pitchfork,” he said to her, referring to Arcade Fire, the band we’d just seen at Madison Square Garden. “And I think that’s what made them so popular.”

It was just another strange moment in a night that was full of them. And while it ended with someone’s dad name-checking a Web site that’s become more influential than Rolling Stone, the night began even stranger–with frontman Win Butler stepping onto the Bono & Bruce-blessed stage like a rock ‘n’ roll messiah. Here to promote their third album, The Suburbs, Butler and eight backing musicians (including his wife, band co-founder Régine Chassagne) seemed to symbolically complete a decade-long journey from angsty art students to a Certified Arena Act. They took the audience captive, performing with vigor and confidence, knowing full well that the audience was eating from their violin-plucking hands.

It’s an incredible thing that an upstart group like this one–still on a small indie label based out of Chapel Hill–can play a legendary venue usually reserved for Top 40 acts. But it’s the nature of the time we live in. Who doesn’t feel some sense of collective success here? After all, Pitchfork didn’t break this band on its own; we did it. And in many ways, watching last night’s show felt like a mob’s victory dance.

But that’s the good news. Here’s the bad news: The new album lacks memorable melodies, stretches on for way too long, and the lyrics often read like dorm room diaries. And when performed live, The Suburbs ruined the momentum of the night. “Month of May” sounded sludgy and messy, like sticky molasses on their guitars was retarding the texture. “Rococo,” another new track, is a sweet and jangly anthem–the perfect song for a Gondry movie trailer–but it never quite takes off live. Sure, it’s a pleasure to listen to on your headphones, but otherwise, it’s an intermezzo for Neon Bible and Funeral. And boy, do the older songs still inspire chills–even the somewhat butchy woman sitting next to me, who had never heard any of the bands songs before, could identify when they were playing a new song.

“They’re the ones that don’t sound as quirky,” she said. “The older ones sound:weirder.” She was right. And in retrospect, perhaps that was something that bothered me about the new album–it’s ostensibly a record from the ’70s. A little Neil Young here (“Modern Man”), a little Springsteen there (“Suburban War”) and a lot of blue-collar folk. Even the album’s best track (“Sprawl II”) never quite ascended to the pop heights it does on the record. Toward the end of it, Chassagne picked up ribbon batons and twirled them around the stage. It was the closest Arcade Fire came to a stage prop. But when the songs, for the most part, sounded so enormously heroic (you should’ve heard the “whoo-hoo’s” during “Wake Up”), they didn’t need any.

Somebody’s dad from the Upper West side approves. So do we.

Arcade Fire @ Madison Square Garden, 8.4.10:
1. Ready to Start
2. Neighborhood #2 (Laïka)
3. No Cars Go
4. Haiti
5. Half Light II (No Celebration)
6. Rococo
7. The Suburbs
8. The Suburbs (Continued)
9. Crown of Love
10. Intervention
11. We Used to Wait
12. Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
13. Rebellion (Lies)
14. Month of May
15. Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)

16. Keep the Car Running
17. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
18. Wake Up