So, Thursday night’s Arcade Fire show at Bridgestone Arena was a little undersold. There are a couple of ways to spin that. You could note that another 10,000 people could have fit in the building, a disappointment by coliseum-rock standards. Or, you could highlight how a Canadian indie-rock band on Merge Records drew a crowd of more than 5,000 to a gig in Nashville, and call it a triumphant feat for underground music. You could say the turnout was as weak as it was at Kanye’s Bridgestone show last fall. Or you could say, “Holy shit, Arcade Fire brought out as big a crowd as mainstream superstar Kanye West!” Let’s go with the latter angle.
It’s been 10 years since Arcade Fire rose from total obscurity to become indie stars and critical darlings with their left-of-dial game-changer debut Funeral — five songs from which popped up in Thursday’s 21-song set. Interpol, Animal Collective, Death From Above 1979, Franz Ferdinand, The Streets, TV on the Radio, et al. — are any of Arcade Fire’s much-hyped 2004 contemporaries anywhere close to arena status today? No way. And not all bands necessarily want that, but Arcade Fire has always found a way to rise above their hype, and they’ve done it by constantly making fans meet them on their own terms.
When the world wanted another Funeral, Arcade Fire gave us Neon Bible; when people wanted another Suburbs, the band issued Reflektor. Like art-rock stars Radiohead and R.E.M. before them, Arcade Fire creates a new sonic and aesthetic world every couple years. Nowhere was that more apparent than at Nashville's enormodome Thursday night.
From the minute The Spin sauntered up to Bridgestone, the feeling was different than it was at any arena show we’ve been to (and we’ve been to a lot of them at this point). For one, after all the grumbling about the band requesting fans wear costumes or formal attire to their concerts, it appeared as though roughly half the attendees (maybe more) followed suit. Naturally, this instant hipster prom/post-modern masquerade-ball atmosphere made for some excellent people watching.
As we roamed the concourse, there was no shortage of gig-goers — from distinguished gentlemen to Greek goddesses — garbed in tuxedos, hairpins, phantom masks, Mardi Gras beads and tons of shit probably purchased from nearby Party City. Some folks were dressed to the nines, others were less committed but still made the effort, while many obviously trotted out that now-ill-fitting suit they keep around for the occasional wedding or funeral. We saw one group of people wearing Eyes Wide Shut masks; we saw a girl clad head-to-toe in full lion-tamer regalia, top hat and all; people were having fun. The band’s plan worked!
Inside, Arcade Fire had decked out the hall to have a Caribbean nightclub feel, and the vibe had a unique intimacy. By the time we found our seats, tUnE-yArDs were in the home stretch of their opening set. The sound of singer Merrill Garbus’ commanding, full-bodied rasp and hyper-rhythmic world-beating backing band echoing through the arena was mesmerically trance-inducing. As the yArDs' set ended, the house lights didn’t go up. Instead, fellow support act Kid Koala (who, like a furry, was dressed like, you guessed it, a Koala) rose out of the “B-stage” across the arena floor as a disco ball descended overhead. With the show — main event, openers, DJ and all — put together as one continuous presentation, the transition from Koala spinning hot wax to Arcade Fire’s stage entrance was seamless.
With a clamor, “Nighttime” blazed straight into Reflektor's title track, a song that packs a much bigger punch live than it does on record. As each chorus hit, Butler — now a seasoned rock frontman — would lunge toward the crowd and leap onto the monitors, outstretching his hands and looking like a cross between Bono and Frankenstein. At one point during the song, he grabbed an audience member's phone and took a selfie. Meanwhile, his wife/bandmate Regine Chassagne held up a pair of octagonal mirrors to, ahem, reflekt light on the audience.
Arcade Fire is big on lights, with each song having well-synced flashes of rich color. As for octagonal mirrors, above the stage was a low-hanging, shimmering sub-roof of those. Combined with the sometimes-screens/sometimes-mirrors behind the band and a sleek, egg-white floor, the stage itself looked like a swanky Miami dance club perched inside an arena.
Whether it was during The Suburbs' title track (which decayed and faded into a hypnotic audience sing-along), the somewhat seldom-played Funeral cut “Crown of Love,” or Reflektor gems like “Afterlife” and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” (during which Chassagne appeared on the B-stage, she and Butler singing to each other like lovers on separate cliffs with a deep valley between them), it was clear the band had no trouble captivating an arena-sized crowd and filling the vast space with sound. The sound hardly ever stopped, actually, with the band using musical interludes to join most songs in the set. A couple times those interludes included stripped-down, truncated versions of Neon Bible fan faves like “My Body Is a Cage” and a seemingly spontaneous “Antichrist Television Blues.”
As evidenced by both the crowd’s willingness to dress for the occasion and relentless attentiveness, it was clear that Arcade Fire fans aren’t casual in their love for the band — a band that, in spite of the times, is still an “album band.” They don’t have any charting hits, yet it seemed like most of last night’s 5,000-ish attendees knew every song.
The band did such a good job transforming Bridgestone into its own reflektive world that we didn’t feel like we were in Nashville until the mostly Ryman-befitting encore. Not just because it kicked off with the band’s bobble-headed impostors miming along to Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” on the B-stage, but also thanks to a worship-worthy rendition of the uber-churchy anthem “Intervention” and an always-evangelical, rousing, arms-outstretched mass sing-along to the band’s signature song “Wake Up.” As guitarist/bassist/keyboardist Tim Kingsbury promised the Scene, the band went deep with its regionally specific cover of the night, opting to tackle The Louvin Brothers nugget “Broadminded” — the first song of the night that wholly perplexed the crowd — in loose, synth-pop-gone-bluegrass form.
Even if this was Nashville, it was Arcade Fire’s version of Nashville, and it was spectacular. "It really is our party, and we can do what we want,” Butler said near the end of the show. Cheers to that!