Onstage at the UNO Lakefront Arena on Tuesday, Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler reminisced about how, in 2004, his then-unknown band opened for fellow Montreal rockers The Unicorns at One Eyed Jacks in the French Quarter.
“All of our synthesizers melted,” Butler recalled of that steamy New Orleans night. But still, he thought to himself, “I’m going to come back here again.”
He did, many times. Eventually, he never left. Following an Arcade Fire headlining performance at the 2014 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival — the decade since that One Eyed Jacks show treated Arcade Fire far more kindly than The Unicorns — Butler and his wife, Regine Chassagne, moved to New Orleans. They bought a house Uptown and built a small home studio where much of Arcade Fire’s recent fifth album, “Everything Now,” was recorded.
“It’s really fun playing these songs here,” Butler said Tuesday, “because we made them all here.”
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Arcade Fire is a band that must be experienced live to fully appreciate, especially in the wake of its recent pivot from idiosyncratic, meaningful indie rock to idiosyncratic, meaningful dance music. The material on the groove-y “Everything Now,” punched up and emboldened, translated favorably to the stage, especially a stage as innovative as Arcade Fire’s boxing ring. Set in the center of the arena floor, topped with a four-sided LED screen and a square lighting rig heavy on strobes, it made for a striking visual presentation, even moreso after the boxing ring's ropes were removed four songs in.
At the outset, the musicians were introduced like prizefighters and made their way to the ring through the audience. That audience was not nearly as large as it should have been. The majority of the Lakefront Arena’s seats, including all the upper bleacher sections, were empty. This despite Arcade Fire’s strong showing at last fall’s Voodoo Experience in City Park, which should have served as an advertisement for this return visit with their full production.
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The band didn’t seem deterred by the empty seats, and neither did the fans on hand, especially those standing on the floor and clustered on the four sides of the stage. The opening salvo of the glossy, pop-tastic “Everything Now” title track, the disco pulse of “Signs of Life” and the upbeat “Rebellion (Lies)” set the energized tone. The vibrant textures produced by as many as nine musicians crowded into the ring, combined with the strobes and vertical columns of light, made for an immersive experience.
Red lights bathed the stage for “No Cars Go,” then switched to deep blue as Chassagne presided over the chill “Electric Blue.” The driving “Ready To Start” was positively electric. “Sprawl II” evoked Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” complete with two giant disco balls casting shards of light. Chassagne, when not singing like an especially ethereal Debbie Harry, danced frantically beneath one out in the audience. She, like the rest of the band, is not afraid to be herself.
The musicians, dressed in "Everything Now"-themed jackets and jumpsuits, repositioned themselves frequently, swapping out instruments and moving to different sides of the stage; regardless of the audience's vantage point, the view shifted often, adding another dimension to the dynamic presentation.
The lanky Butler alternated on bass, guitar and a white upright piano stationed next to the drums on a revolving platform at the center of the stage. He is a relatively low-key rock frontman, generally content to be just another component of the swirling soundscape around him. All night, the rhythmic strength of the songs was apparent, even as the set dragged a bit toward the end.
But another infusion of energy was coming. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has opened several shows on Arcade Fire's current "Infinite Content" tour, including at New York's Madison Square Garden recently. Pres Hall wasn’t officially on the bill for New Orleans, but made a surprise appearance in the encore, anyway.
Following the ballad “We Don’t Deserve Love," tuba player Ben Jaffe, saxophonists Charlie Gabriel and Clint Maedgen and their bandmates marched onto the stage for “Everything Now (Continued)” and a hero’s welcome. They bolstered a final, ecstatic “Wake Up,” which was as unabashedly joyful as arena rock gets.
Even after that exhilarating climax, they weren’t quite done. Pres Hall continued to play unplugged during the recessional march. Arcade Fire multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry, a drumstick in his right hand and a tambourine in his left, pounded the rhythm on equipment cases as he exited the arena floor. After two hours, he was still that fired up. He wasn’t alone.