"Well … we're in church," singer Win Butler said to his Arcade Fire bandmates with a slight smile, cuing the organ intro to "Intervention" during last night's show at The Ryman. Exactly 24 hours earlier — to the minute — we were watching the very same band play the very same song to a crowd 20 times the size at Lollapalooza. What a difference a day makes.
The Ryman has never felt as small as it did playing host to the band's long-overdue Nashville debut. In case you're wondering, last night's marriage of intimacy and histrionic grandeur simply couldn't compare to the hair-raising spectacle of 30,000-plus festival-goers nearly drowning them out by chanting wordless melodies, clapping along to every quarter-note and losing themselves in (and on) the ecstasy of the moment. But hardly anyone in the house last night knew that. In fact, it was clear by the palpable feeling of curious anticipation buzzing throughout the room before the lights went down, that the ensuing show would be a de-virginizing experience for the vast majority of fans in attendance. And while it's dwarfed by other venues on the band's itinerary — like Madison Square Garden or Atlanta's Verizon Amphitheater — The Ryman was a fitting place for them to meet the Nashville welcoming committee of local-rock scenesters, whiskery button-down shirt collectors, sundress- and/or librarian glasses-sporting women and a phalanx of general listeners who like their rock 'n' roll grand and dramatic — and who are starting to outnumber the rest of the pack.
The spiritual enormity of the Ryman was not lost on Win Butler. Early in the set — on behalf of the band — he acknowledged the venue's history with a bow, but remarked, "We're still gonna try and be ourselves." And that was exactly what they did throughout a near two-hour set in which the eight-piece ensemble — under a dazzling light show that would've made the Trans-Siberian Orchestra green with envy — screamed into bullhorns, rapidly switched positions on a music store's inventory of gear and road-tested material from their latest release, The Suburbs. Ten of the set's 18 songs came from their breakthrough debut Funeral and its follow-up Neon Bible, and the unbridled enthusiasm was matched on both sides.
The band is still toying with how to best present the newer material live, and they seemed to look upon the Ryman stage as a good ground for wearing in moodier Suburbs mid-album cuts like "Suburban War" and the rarely played "Deep Blue" — songs where the finer, more nuanced moments would've disappeared into the thin air of a festival like Lollapalooza, where they neglected such numbers in favor of faster, more punchy anthems. While each had their moments of power and beauty, they have yet to get to the point of the tense "We Used to Wait," which had Butler singing from within the clutches of the crowd by song's end. Still, Funeral staples like "Neighborhood" (one, two or three), "Rebellion (Lies)" and the torch-ready waltz "Crown of Love" are what brought out the zealous fervor that has followed the band since they hit the world stage running.
We're not sure we've ever seen a Ryman crowd come alive like it did last night when the band closed their set with the Funeral favorite "Wake Up," loosing a bigger emotional catharsis than that "best cry ever" guy as they belted out "ohhh OHHH ohhh" in unison. This time it was the crowd singing off mic at the Ryman — a crowd who will never forget how they saw Arcade Fire set the Mother Church alight before launching completely into the arena-rock stratosphere.