I remember my first Arcade Fire show. It was in 2004 in Montreal. Funeral was still a few months away from lighting the world on fire. I still have the ticket stub — a bright yellow, hand-written job that reads Hidden Cameras and the Arcade Fire (they were still using the 'the' back then), $10.
It was, I surmised at that time, one of the worst shows I had ever seen. I was fresh out of high school, a time when I listened to a lot of the Strokes and White Stripes and Pearl Jam; seeing a bunch of people flail around wearing electrical tape while making strange, discordant music didn't connect with me. I thought the living-room lamps they included in their stage setup were pretentious.
In 2005, I saw Arcade Fire at the Burton Cummings Theatre in Winnipeg. I was a little older, a little wiser and was listening to different music — but the band had changed, too. It was playing a much larger room for one thing, but it had taken its discordant noise and shaped it into something visceral. That show was transcendent. I listened to Funeral — one of music's most perfect debut albums — every day for a year.
Over the course of a decade and four studio albums — each one more sprawling than the last — we've watched Arcade Fire grow up into a bona-fide, Grammy-winning arena act. Led by husband and wife duo Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, the band is currently on a world tour in support of 2013's Reflektor — an ambitious, Talking Heads-esque double-disc album that polarized critics and was advanced by an ambitious, highly publicized guerilla marketing campaign. This is not the band I saw in 2004. It's not even the band I saw at the MTS Centre in 2010.
Still, as it proved during Thursday night's show at the MTS Centre, Arcade Fire still delivers an emotional live experience that hits you right in the gut. It's just on a way bigger scale.
At just before 9 p.m., Arcade Fire — or possibly its alter-ego band, the Reflektors, it was hard to tell — made a party processional across the floor, before transforming the arena into a Haitian street festival with the rara-inspired Here Comes The Night Time. The confetti cannons and streamers came early. Arcade Fire's ranks have swollen to 12 (including Owen Pallett on violin for this tour) so the sound was full, and Butler was, as usual, a commanding bandleader. Standing at 6-5, he's a presence.
From there, it was straight into an absolutely punishing version of Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) off Funeral. A trio of Reflektor tunes followed — the chugging guitar-rocker Flashbulb Eyes (which features steel drums courtesy of Chassagne, who is always a pleasure to watch), the slinky title track and the pummelling rocker Joan of Arc — before the band kicked it back to 2010's The Suburbs with chaotic punk rocker Month of May and title track — a masterfully crafted ode to the pastel-coloured Edward Scissorhands suburbs of the Butler brothers' Texas youth (Will Butler plays keys in the band). The song's sinister undercurrent was made palpable by Butler and Chassagne's ethereal vocal interplay.
The first half of the show was sweaty and breathless, driven by an omnipresent, propulsive rhythm section (with two full kits plus percussion). Very few people were sitting down.
Official attendance figures weren't made available, but many of the Winnipeggers who were there embraced the tour's (hotly-contested) dress code, turning up in slinky cocktail dresses and sharp suits paired with all manner of masquerade masks, fascinators and feathered boas. A few went more Halloween with it; props to the guy in the full giraffe costume.
The second half of the set was perhaps a more musically diverse showing from the AF catalogue, with the affecting orchestral-pop number Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) from Funeral giving way into the austere disco-ball sheen of We Exist, with its Billie Jean baseline, from the new album. The juxtaposition put into stark relief the band's evolution, but the same heart beats behind it. A late-set performance of the sprawling After Life was stunning.
Arcade Fire has been playing regional covers in each city on the Reflektor tour. We got a jam-band version of Neil Young's Come on Baby Let's Go Downtown from Tonight's the Night. (By the way, at least two people owe me $5.)
After an incendiary performance of Normal Person, the show ended on a dizzying high with megawatt renditions of Rebellion (Lies) and Wake Up — a pair of fists-in-the-air anthems from Funeral. Hearing thousands of voices raise up together for those 'whoa-ohs' in the latter sends chills down your spine no matter now many times you've heard it. So, some things about an Arcade Fire show don't change.
Tune-Yards — the experimental freak folk/world music project led by multi-instrumentalist/sonic adventuress Merrill Garbus — took the stage at 7:30 p.m. for a small but enthusiastic crowd. Her primal, kinetic soundscapes are created from an intricate collage of looped vocals and live instrumentation. The bulk of the set drew from 2011 landmark album Whokill — including single Gangsta, which has popped up on Orange is the New Black and The Good Wife — as well as this year's Nikki Nack.
Tune-Yards is best heard in a smaller room; some of the nuances were lost in the cavernous arena. Still, those who showed up early were rewarded with a fun, high-energy set.
Electronic composer Dan Deacon kept the party going — even initiating a large-scale dance off in the middle of the floor that started between a mustard bottle and Link from the Legend of Zelda games. Winnipeg, you're fun.