A few years back, U2 used Arcade Fire's recording of "Wake Up" to pump up arena crowds before they hit the stage. Last night, indie rock's number-one overachievers had the chutzpah to headline one of the world's most famous arenas for the first of not one, but two concerts. To say they merely pulled it off would be to sell them short. Per usual for a band obsessed with integrity, Arcade Fire did it on their terms. Their Canadian pal Owen Pallett opened the show with odd, gorgeous songs for solo violin, digital loops, and percussion that made the cavernous space seem like a basement apartment. Then came labelmates and indie-rock vets Spoon, playing lean, minimalist rock that, like Arcade Fire's, knew its history (watch their Late Night With Jimmy Fallon performance here). Britt Daniel — rail-thin in white T-shirt and jeans, bandmates all in black — yelped through a tight-wound set, conjuring whiffs of the Beatles on the piano-driven "Don't Make Me a Target" and classic Motown on "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb," which flexed a jaunty horn section.
There was nothing minimalist about Arcade Fire. Their backdrop was a double projection screen, one small and one large, covered in a dense mix that mashed up magnified and processed live images with other footage. The band, nine members strong, represented in their usual array of hipster street clothes, toting a couple truckloads of instruments, from guitars and violins to glockenspiel and accordion. But where, over the years, clubs and even theaters could barely contain the band's energy, sound, sweat, Madison Square Garden — sold out, with the rear of the arena curtained off and the floor split into half general admission/half theater seating — was a perfect fit.
Still, it was a little astonishing, like your little brother accepting the Nobel Prize. They opened with "Ready to Start," the most riveting cut on The Suburbs , released the day before. Régine Chassagne pounded a set of drums in a silver cocktail dress like a miniature Sheila E, while her husband/bandleader Win Butler, a wan beanpole with an art-school tonsure, crooned about loneliness and about how to make art into commerce without either losing your soul or shortchanging yourself. "I'd rather be wrong," he declared, "than to live in the shadow of your song."
No worry, dude: for all the usual comparisons to their heroes — Bowie, Springsteen — Arcade Fire stood in no one's shadow last night. The energy dipped on some of the new material, which often used solo voices, as opposed to the band's trademark group hollers, to probe the disconnectedness of suburbia. But the punked-out "Month of May" and Régine's synth-poppy showcase "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" made their mark in spite of being unfamiliar.
That said, the night's most astonishing moments were beloved songs like "Rebellion (Lies)" and "Wake Up," anthems that had most of the band lined up at the lip of the stage, rocking, dancing, hammering on percussion, and leading breathtaking shoutalongs, many no more than wordless chants. The audience, a staid mix of clean-cut twenty-somethings, untucked professionals, and rock & roll greybeards, was on its feet to the last row, thousands of voices hollering together in glorious semi-harmony.
And when the last note died out, after the bandmembers leaned into the crowd to shake hands and Régine handed her tambourine to a girl in the front row, the arena seemed to empty out in the blink of an eye. It was near midnight, after all; tomorrow was a workday, and many in the crowd were no doubt headed back to the suburbs, their hearts full and their heads full of tunes.
Tonight's Arcade Fire show at MSG will be webcast on YouTube, directed by hallucinatory auteur Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Time Bandits), beginning at 10 p.m. EST.