Saturday Night: Arcade Fire Hurls Mics, Swordfights with Drumsticks, and Remembers Grandpa Vino at the Greek Theatre

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Christopher Victorio
Arcade Fire's Win Butler looking stoic during "No Cars Go"
Arcade Fire
Calexico
October 2, 2010
@ The Greek Theatre, Berkeley

Better than: Living in the suburbs.

Drumstick battles, microphones hurled into the crowd, pianos turned into standing platforms, a rolling tom-tom that looked more like a piece of artillery than a musical instrument, and a box out in front of the stage onto which Arcade Fire's Win Butler stepped to howl at some of his 8,500 adorers, and even, at the end, have them strum his guitar.

Thus did Arcade Fire prove that serious music must not be boring, that mass catharsis can make for tearjerking thrills, and that this Montreal seven-piece really is about the best young rock band that we have today. Saturday night at the Greek Theatre, Arcade Fire also played some damn good songs.

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Christopher Victorio
Surprisingly, this most ambitious of bands, author of such weightily titled albums as Funeral, Neon Bible, and, most recently, The Suburbs, also managed to be kinda funny. William Butler (band figurehead Win's younger brother) ran around the stage with a loose tom-tom drum, sneaking up on other band members and clobbering the thing in an apparent effort to shock them into messing up, or at least get someone to let out a smile. The younger Butler even held a fun-as-hell-looking drumstick duel with the fire-haired, guitar-playing Richard Parry early on that sent shards of wood flying into the crowd.

Mostly though, Arcade Fire shot rounds of sincerity, prudence, wisdom, and other causes almost too grown up for rock 'n' roll at a strenuously adoring crowd. The instrument-rotating militia exploded widescreen narratives on fleeting youth, confusing adulthood, and the ennui of everyday life, each pained refrain shouted back by energized fans (beginning with the conspicuous call out "But I'm Not," from opener "Ready To Start," and continuing with -- well, with that fist-raising chant-inducing line that every Arcade Fire song seems to contain.)

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Christopher Victorio
Richard Parry mans the megaphone
The sprawling stage set, filled by a hurdy-gurdy, keyboards, piano, guitars, violinist, megaphone-on-stand, and two drum kits -- and backdropped by anonymous freeway overpasses and a video screen meant to imitate a freeway sign -- wasn't big enough for Butler. The band's massive frontman teetered on top of his stage monitors from the early climax of "Month of May," and, farther along in the night, bounded over them on the way to his big black box, toting a chrome microphone, bent over, brown leather jackboots at sea-of-fans level, blowing up that crowd-star barrier that every big venue show suffers from.

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Christopher Victorio
When his wife Regine Chassagne sang her first song, Win, on piano, elevated his massive frame to the top of it and precariously shouted out background vocals while pretty much stealing the crowd's attention. But the fans chirped approval at the first front-of-stage appearance of Chassagne, with her sequined, gold-tinged, tutu-like dress, her girlish Francophone lilt, her twirling dance moves, and her accordion. She even came out in a lighthearted moment and twizzled some colorful pom-pom-like streamers to chuckling approval, before dropping them deadpan as the mood turned serious.

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Christopher Victorio
Regine works the hurdy-gurdy
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Christopher Victorio
Regine with her streamers
​Throughout, the whole crew was effusively grateful. Win didn't talk to the crowd much, but when he did, it was either to burble thanks or underscore the seriousness of the night's effort. "Me and Will's grandpa, this was kind of his hometown -- we've got a real deep connection to this city," Butler announced before launching into a version of "No Cars Go" so tense it made the version from Neon Bible feel like a jingle. (He dedicated the night's last song to "Grandpa Vino," whose death helped inspire Funeral.) Toward the end, Butler explained that a dollar from each ticket would go to a group called Partners in Health, "and then here's our hit song," he quickly spat, as the band leapt into "Neighborhood #3 (Power's Out)," which could have been the best song of the night, along with a third of the band's set.

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Christopher Victorio
Win would later hold this guitar out for the folks in front to strum
"Thank you for letting us have the best jobs in the world," Butler eventually bid farewell. When  he finally headed off stage after the massive, closing tumult of "Wake Up" -- bolstered by the antiaircraft gun of a tom drum and enough energy from both sides of the stage to tremble the antique stones of the Greek -- the elder Butler paused, ripped a vocal microphone off its stand, and hurled it, apropos of nothing, into the pit, as the crowd detonated sounds of approval.

They may indeed have the best job in the world. But Saturday at the Greek, Butler and Arcade Fire proved worthy of it.

Critic's Notebook

Opener: The cynic in me couldn't help but wonder if low-energy opener Calexico was chosen to make the Arcade Fire seem even more exciting. The Tucson alt-folk group's records are subtle, lush affairs, but I had to keep forcing myself to pay attention to its live show. It was pretty cool, though, when two of the band's members came out to play trumpet during Arcade Fire's "Ocean of Noise."

Personal bias: I'm either blessed or cursed by a desire/need to take rock music (or at least some of it) seriously. Lots of times, such a conviction seems just a fool's errand. But seeing Arcade Fire makes me think I'm right to want more than just entertainment and distraction from this stuff.

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