On the Little Five Points' streets, a battalion of Salvation Armani, as one onlooker calls them, slowly files into the Variety Playhouse to see the anointed ones.
The Arcade Fire does not travel alone, however. The group comes with a lot of baggage since it's now bolting from the gate of the winner's circle - at least in indie terms. The band has been placed in the lineage of Mercury Rev, Modest Mouse, the Talking Heads and Polyphonic Spree, among others, which could be just enough rope for the group to hang itself. But on this night, the Arcade Fire rises to the hype.
Following an opening set by Final Fantasy, one of the Arcade Fire's two touring violinists (incidentally, he brings to mind a less beefy Johnny of the Cobra Kai, the Karate Kid's arch nemesis), the full band emerges. Bleary-eyed and looking like members of their own sold-out thrift store audience, the Arcade Fire shuffles onto a stage strewn with vintage equipment. The seven members, dressed in soon-to-be sweat-soaked screen-printed suits and party dresses, come across like a demented prep school gang. They also exhibit a childlike exuberance to match.
Picking up the first of many shared and circulated instruments - from a half-dozen guitars to a glockenspiel, an accordion to a stand-up bass - the Fire begins the set swaying back and forth from wailing to a waltzing. The players buffet the capacity crowd with flushes of instrumentation and a seven-part chorus, swollen not by hype but hope.
The songs on Funeral, overall, are about being humbled, but not deflated, as the group's set demonstrates. For every outpouring of yelping, full-spectrum pomp ["Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)," "Wake Up"] there is an elegiac counterpoint ["Crown of Love," "Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)"]. At times the band picks at the scabs of affectation and eccentricity, but then checks itself before crossing the border into pretension. The players are gloriously shambolic, especially animated singer/accordionist/keyboardist Régine Chassagne and multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry (an equally spastic and elastic kindred spirit of Napoleon Dynamite's titular geek).
Admittedly, some momentum is lost in the process of all the stage changes. Chassagne's turns at the fore - "Haiti" and "Une Année Sans Lumiere" - begin the most awkwardly. Everyone stumbles between instruments and then struggles to regain their footing. But the very Bjork-like Chassagne transforms any inelegant moments with her pixieish humming and exaggerated movements. At times she's a music box's twitching pirouette; other times, a convulsing street musician.
But Chassagne holds second candle - or fiddle in the Fire's case - to Reed, whose antics culminate on the rafters-reaching "Rebellion (Lies)" and "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)." He starts out playing makeshift bootstrap percussion then takes to beating the stage.
Chassagne ends the show with "In the Backseat," Funeral's ethereal closing track. Playing along with an invisible piano, she leads the ensemble as it begins to form a processional through the crowd. The audience reverently parts and warmly accepts the band. The gesture stands as a powerful statement about the efforts of the musicians and the faith of their flock. No gospel choir or tent revivalist could have done it better.
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