On a rainy April night, not unlike the few that preceeded it, thousands packed into the UIC Pavilion to witness the third and final show from two of indie rock’s most brilliant stalwarts, The Arcade Fire and The National. Both are out in support of their latest records, The National with their highly acclaimed fifth album “High Violet” and The Arcade Fire with their 2010 Grammy-winning/list-topping third record “The Suburbs”. They’re only playing a select few shows together, basically spanning a couple dates in Missouri, the three in Chicago and one in Indianapolis. It’s an incredibly tough bill to turn down if you love your music, even at the markedly imperfect large venue. Of course the band not only sold out one night in a room that size, but they did it three times in a row, so clearly the demand is there. And better the UIC Pavilion than the even clunkier Allstate Arena or United Center. The first show announced was the Monday night show, which after selling out in a relative heartbeat was then backed up by the Friday and Saturday leading into Easter. Monday never seems to be the “right” day for a show, what with the start of the work week and the general depression that sets in with that. All the rain wasn’t helping either, so there wasn’t quite the electricity in the air you might hope for. The thing about bands is that they don’t exactly have “weekends” or “Mondays”, and if a crowd is not giving them what they need, they’ll either force it out of them or turn in a performance that’s equal with what they’re getting in return. Thankfully both bands seem to do the former, resulting in one of the most exhilarating live shows you’ll find not just on a rainy Monday, but on any day of any week.
This may come as a surprise to nobody, but The National are not the most upbeat band in the world. Songs about failed relationships, political strife and general depression are the norm for them, but they do it with class and style and sharp pop sensibilities, all of which lessen the lyrical pain contained within. Starting their set on Monday night with “Anyone’s Ghost” was perhaps not the most inspired choice. The hook is solid, but it’s a slow burner much like a lot of the band’s material. The standard for many artists is to start strong and draw people in, with most choosing to go with the opening track on their most recent release as it tends to have that same effect. Given that the UIC Pavilion was only a little more than half filled when they started their set though, a fair number of people there were probably fans of The National already, showing up on time to see one of their favorites from the very beginning. You don’t need to sell those people on your band because they’re already sold. Whipping out the “Alligator” classic “Secret Meeting” next, things picked up courtesy of the surging chorus that had singer Matt Berninger screaming by the end – something that you don’t get on the recorded version. In fact, a lot of the songs during The National’s set were brimming with a newfound life and intensity that they haven’t shown often before, evidence of how they’ve grown as a live act in the last few years. Their “hit” “Bloodbuzz Ohio” scored big with the crowd, as did the scream-filled take on “Squalor Victoria”. Arcade Fire’s Richard Parry joined the band on guitar and some backing vocals for “Afraid of Everyone” and “Conversation 16”, which was exciting for some but left a couple brilliant people remarking, “So wait…that guy is in Arcade Fire?”. One of the more random moments in the set was when the band whipped out the “Alligator” b-side “Driver, Surprise Me”, which is not only a challenge to find on record but also to catch a live performance of. Out on a limb, I’d wager about 2-3 people in the entire building knew the song, and the deafening silence in the room was evidence enough of that. The National finished strong though, with a four hit combo that was big on energy and one unplanned moment. The extended outro tacked onto “Fake Empire” was an additional kick in the pants that was earned and exciting. The place was all filled up and naturally went into a frenzy when Win Butler of Arcade Fire came dashing out during “Start A War” to contribute some backing vocals and harmonies. Berninger cracked a smile as Butler exited the stage, commenting, “I thought we said no improvising,” appearing to acknowledge that the appearance wasn’t wholly expected. In the band’s pre-“High Violet” days, “Mr. November” was their standard closing song (in particular to celebrate Barack Obama’s election), bringing energy to spare along with all the screaming promises of “I won’t fuck us over”. This time it was just shy of last, the coveted spot being turned over to “High Violet” opening cut “Terrible Love”. It’s the song they should have started on, but finishing on it was nearly as good. One hour after they took the stage, The National exited triumphant, with the crowd eating out of the palms of their hands and rippling with palpable excitement for The Arcade Fire. It may have been rainy and it may have been a Monday, but the crowd had turned to Saturday and sunny.
The National – Bloodbuzz Ohio
The National – Afraid of Everyone
Buy The National’s “High Violet” from Amazon
One of the more fun things about The Arcade Fire’s current tour is their stage set-up, which features both a classic light-up drive-in movie marquee and a projection screen. Somebody next to me said they didn’t understand how a marquee sign was supposed to relate to the suburbs. Given all the light pollution and the need for an open field, drive-ins theatres were restricted to suburbs and farm towns only, so that’s how the concept makes sense. Prior to their entrance on stage, there were a couple quick “Coming Attractions” that were some old previews for movies where evil comes to the suburbs, otherwise known as bratty, drug-using youths. It was a fun and funny way to put everyone in the mindset for the band’s set, which again dumped the unspoken “start with the first track off your new album” rule but opted instead for the much more energized hit single “Ready to Start”. Not only does the song have a stellar pace, but the title and lyrics tell you plainly that you’d best be fired up and set to get things underway. Like a continued punch to the gut, “Keep the Car Running” hit next and the energy level stayed at a high. People were jumping and singing along at the top of their lungs, giving back to the band exactly what they were shoving out to the masses in the first place. “Haiti” may have been a little more relaxed in its pace, but its tropical vibe mixed with Regine Chassagne’s pixie-like dancing kept the party headed in the right direction. One of the weakest moments on the new record is “Rococo”, primarily for its spiteful lyrics and the sheer ad nauseum number of times the song title is repeated. The dancing stopped and the mood got heavy at the show all of a sudden when that arrived, and it was like the band had shifted into a different gear. What made the live version of “Rococo” essential though was the way that Win Butler sang the song. There was such a raw intensity and spitfire anger pumping out of the speakers that you’ve got to give the guy credit for selling his art. “This is our last night of three in Chicago,” Butler said. “We’re leaving it all on the floor tonight”. The darker side of “The Suburbs” became a theme from that jumping off point, the heart of which was “Suburban War” and “The Suburbs” back-to-back. “Month of May” didn’t lose any of the intensity but picked the energy in the room back up significantly as the band got more heavy metal than at any other time that night.
The third phase of the show seemed to be a return to the “Funeral” days, and a trip through the numbered neighborhoods. As they’ve always done, the band went percussion crazy on “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)”, with everybody that had a free hand banging on whatever they could find with a drumstick. I do kind of miss the days when Richard Parry would strap on a helmet and people would drum on his head, but if they kept doing it the novelty might wear off. The most spirited performances of the evening were naturally saved for last. Win Butler came dangerously close to jumping into the crowd for “We Used to Wait”, but he seemed hesitant to do so after it looked like a few people were trying to grab his microphone cord and wrestle it away from him. They probably wanted to sing, but then again so did everybody. The amount of unsolicited singing and shouting in the crowd was intense, but that’s kind of how you want it to be, a communal experience that bonds everyone, not just the performers. Without a doubt then, the two biggest moments came courtesy of the set-closing “Rebellion (Lies)” and the creme in the encore cookie sandwich known as “Wake Up”. The songs were born to be played in stadiums to masses of people, as evidenced not only in their use via sports advertising, but at the actual shows themselves. Fists in the air, people jumping and shouting in the triumph of the moment. But they weren’t the ones standing tall up on that stage having vanquished a foe. Instead it was the band, and only the band that emerged victorious when it all finished. Like living vicariously through our favorite sports teams though, we’re left with unabashed pride and optimism when it’s all finished, overjoyed that the band we were all rooting for delivered either at or above our expectations. Sprinkle a little “Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains” on top, and serve it up with colorful ribbons and streamers. If you don’t walk away feeling exhilarated after a set like that, you’ve got some serious emotional issues. Weather and moods be damned, The Arcade Fire are your refuge and rock, and you’d be foolish to miss seeing them any chance you get.
Buy The Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” from Amazon
The National – Set List
Afraid of Everyone
Driver, Surprise Me
Start A War (w/ Win Butler)
The Arcade Fire – Set List
Ready to Start
Keep the Car Running
Month of May
Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
No Cars Go
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
We Used to Wait
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains