Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler had the last, incongruous word at the 2016 Voodoo Festival. Wrapping up a nearly two-hour set at 9:20 p.m. Sunday, Butler halted on his way offstage and exclaimed, apropos of nothing, “No more private prisons in the state of Louisiana! F--- private prisons! Good night!”
Locals who might know Butler only as the tall, long-haired dude who sips coffee in the Garden District, leads David Bowie memorial parades that shut down the French Quarter and turns up at funerals for prominent New Orleans musicians got to see him do something far more impressive Sunday: Front an ambitious, multi-dimensional, forward-thinking rock band that delivered the best, and best-sounding, set I heard at the 2016 Voodoo Music & Arts Experience.
Butler and his wife, multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne, have haunted New Orleans more-or-less full time since Arcade Fire’s appearance at the 2014 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. They’ve found kindred spirits across town, especially at Preservation Hall.
On Saturday night, 24 hours before their Voodoo show, Arcade Fire played an intimate warm-up show for a couple of hundred friends and in-the-know locals at Second Line Stages, a film production facility in the Lower Garden District. They plugged in for a far larger audience at City Park, though not nearly as large as the audiences for Tool on Saturday or The Weeknd on Friday.
The Chainsmokers, who closed Voodoo's dance music-themed Le Plur stage at the same time Arcade Fire was on at the Altar stage, siphoned off a sizable percentage of Sunday night's crowd.
Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall, the producers who are the Chainsmokers, essentially functioned as cheerleaders who cued up recordings of their hits, including the confetti-and-fireworks finale of “Don’t Let Me Down.”
Arcade Fire, by contrast, rendered its music live, with a dozen singers and musicians trading off instruments and reveling in the of-the-moment creation.
Arcade Fire arrangements are densely layered, with many inputs. But thanks to an especially nuanced, well-balanced sound mix, individual elements were easily discernible; the drums crackled.
Indicative of the band's organic nature, Butler alternated on guitar, keyboards and bass. His brother Will traded off on guitar, keyboards, percussion and saxophone. Chassagne contributed keyboards, xylophone and accordion, as well as the occasional lead vocal.
But there was nothing precious about it. Songs felt strong, alive and often anthemic.
Bowie’s influence on Arcade Fire’s style of sonic collage was apparent. A disco pulse coursed through the heart of “Reflektor,” the title track from the band’s 2013 album. Elsewhere, shades of “Heart of Glass”-era Blondie were evident. Two drum kits powered “Afterlife.” “Keep the Car Running” cruised along crisply.
Win Butler took advantage of the bully pulpit at his disposal. “Whatever BP paid the state of Louisiana, it wasn’t a tenth of what it should have been,” he said in the first of his locally themed political non sequiturs.
He recalled voting for Al Gore, despite not being “inspired” by him, as a response to the “fear-mongering” fostered by the other side at the time. That fear-mongering, he said, is even worse this election cycle. The band then dove into “Intervention,” a song he wrote during the Bush-Gore battles that has found renewed relevance.
“I’ve been so inspired,” he said of his time in New Orleans. “It’s made me proud to be an American.” Later, he continued, “We need to protect what’s sacred and beautiful about this city. There’s not much of it left.” On that note, which begged for more explanation, the band served up “No Cars Go.”
Momentum waned once or twice as stripped-down side trips petered out. But with the full ensemble up and running, Arcade Fire more than lived up to its promise and potential.
The larger-than-life, bobblehead-like replicas of the musicians' faces, first featured in the “Reflektor” video, joined the real musicians and a representation of Pope Francis onstage during “Here Comes the Night Time.” An exuberant “Wake Up,” with its “uh oh oh” refrain, capped the set and triggered Butler’s prison commentary.
That odd note at the finish didn’t diminish the abundance of music that preceded it. The rained-out final day of 2015 aside, Voodoo has a history of ending on a musical high note. Like Wilco in 2007, My Morning Jacket in 2010 and Jack White in 2012, Arcade Fire rewarded attendees with endurance.