Going into Thursday night's Arcade Fire show in Central Park -- part of this year's CMJ music festival -- expectations were almost impossibly high. What with the buzz from their appearance at the Leeds Festival in the U.K. at the end of August, which a lot of people called the best rock show they'd ever seen, and David Bowie's recent endorsement of the band, there was a general buzz in the air that a lot of people had arrived fully ready not just to see a rock show but a Rock Event.
Arcade Fire play a beautiful, cast-iron filigree kind of music -- delicate and strong, vulnerable and assured. Their debut full-length album, "Funeral" -- they released an eight-song demo EP in 2003 -- was one of the most adored albums of 2004, earning the highest levels of praise from indie music blogs to mainstream magazines like Rolling Stone. It's a heartfelt but decidedly nonsentimental rumination on childhood, memory and loss, made up of jaggedly disparate musical parts, and listening to it is like witnessing a gorgeous three-masted galleon being conjured up from a heap of old scrap. For music so full of instruments -- seven or eight people are usually performing at once -- it manages to remain expansive and open, the melody always clear and unfettered. Tin-can guitars mix with layers of rusty violin, accordion and piano over the solid iron core of bass and drums, the whole ensemble leaping from quiet melodies to stomping, almost anthemic rock -- often within the same song. It all somehow still manages to be familiar while sounding like nothing else you've ever heard.
The live show at Central Park's SummerStage brought a lot of the album's strengths into even greater relief. The crescendos were thunderous, the quiet moments as fragile as gossamer. While the band had some early trouble with equipment and was occasionally at odds with the crowd -- New York rock-show-goers are notoriously reticent -- they managed to craft a show that somehow built from song to song into a perfectly explosive ending. The band, all dressed in black, has that kind of easy stage presence so many performers find elusive -- they're tight without being polished, reckless without being sloppy, assured without being pretentious. They opened with "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)," the first track off the album, and followed with a few others from "Funeral" before playing "Cold Wind" (written for the "Six Feet Under" soundtrack) and turning to a few songs from the earlier EP. These middle numbers -- despite mostly being as strong as anything from "Funeral" -- left a lot of the crowd at a loss, but the energy started building again as they shifted into "Backseat," the emotional center of "Funeral," with the audience dropping into stunned silence and holding their collective breath as Régine Chassagne, pianist, co-lead vocalist and wife to guitarist/singer Win Butler, carried on a cappella at the song's end. The band shifted into the staccato beat high energy of "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" and melted directly into "Rebellion (Lies)" to close the first part of the show.
After the requisite long applause, they took the stage again, and Butler announced they'd be doing a David Bowie song. At that, a grinning, impish Bowie did himself appear, dashingly ablaze in a white suit and matching fedora, to lead the band through "Queen Bitch." Like much of Arcade Fire's music, it was a surprising yet somehow perfect matching, and elevated the night into what felt like historic status. As a nearly full moon broke through the clouds, the audience came out of the semislumber that held them through most of the show and starting dancing. And there was still higher to go: "Wake Up" as a grand finale, with Butler and Bowie, both clearly responding now to the audience, trading verses and then signing together through the song's soaring refrain to perch in a final, touching and climactic moment on the line "You better look out below!"
-- Scott Lamb