The Arcade Fire is the greatest arena rock band on the planet

The Arcade Fire earlier this month in Houston.
The Arcade Fire earlier this month in Houston.
Jim Bricker for Houston Press.

The bar across the street from the Pepsi Center is a menagerie. The Arcade Fire show has just ended, and I am talking to a woman named Sarah who is dressed as a blackbird. Her husband, Tom, is wearing a fire-print onesie and a furry hood with ears. He has a gold plastic sign hanging around his neck that says, "HOT PUSSY." Sarah made Tom's costume last year for a Phish concert. That went just okay. There was a costume contest, and Tom got 63 votes. The winner got thousands.

Tom and Sarah mostly go to jam-band shows, but they like the Arcade Fire. When they went to buy their tickets for tonight's show, they saw the red notice below the price, which appears when you buy tickets for any stop on this tour: "Please wear formal attire or costume." So they did.

"At first it seemed stupid," says Sarah, "but it was fun." They are better prepared than most of the people at the bar. Tom may not have made much noise at the Phish show, but here he's such a novelty that, despite the general prevalence of costumes/formalwear, people are coming up and asking to take pictures with him. Jam bands are way ahead of indie rock when it comes to audience participation.

Still, everyone agrees that the formal attire/costume directive is an attempt to avoid the clock-punching sameness that makes many arena shows so hollow. "Hello, insert city name! You're looking wonderful tonight!" the pop star might as well literally be saying.

The Arcade Fire is the greatest arena rock band on the planet
Isa Jones

And here we are now, in the bar across the street, because the Arcade Fire has just played the kind of show that cannot be the end of the night. The guy sitting across the aisle from me was technically dressed up. He wore a fat tie and mismatched shirt with colored pants and a thin leather jacket. His hair was unruly. He would have been met with uncomfortable sidelong glares in, say, a country club. But not at this show. At this show, he did not dance so much as speak in tongues, and the people around him either followed his lead or looked on with sincere admiration. The Arcade Fire is well equipped to accompany this sort of rapture. As the great Chris Gray noted in his review of Houston's Reflektor tour stop:

Some bands build songs out of a handful of chord changes, but Arcade Fire prefers to start with a simple musical figure -- a rhythm, a riff, a two- or three-note bass line -- and compound it to the Nth degree. On the intensity scale, they tend to start at "up" and finish somewhere in the stratosphere.

"It was life-affirming," says Hot Pussy Tom. So whether it was the dress code or the music or simply the fact that this is a band that feels concerned about potentially alienating its fans in the arena setting, the Arcade Fire has suceeded in making every show special.

It's a leap from "life-affirming" to "greatest arena rock band on the planet," I admit. And maybe that title is faint praise anyway, in an era when there are basically an infinite number of bands and the social media necessary to build a culture around every tiny star. Maybe you could replicate the experience of seeing the Beatles at Red Rocks if BuzzFeed put together a bunch of wide-eyed animals with health problems to poke away at toy instruments.  

The Arcade Fire is the greatest arena rock band on the planet
Isa Jones

But as it stands, we get bands contained neatly in their subcultures, and arena shows are generally at a disadvantage when it comes to changing people's lives compared with club shows and even music festivals. And rock and roll is quicky losing its place as the Music of the People to hip-hop, which feels both more vital and more populist. If any rock band is going to manage that elusive transcendence these days, though, it will be the Arcade Fire.

The songs, as noted, are built to fill the largest possible space. In all of its many permutations, from the orchestras of Funeral to the computers of Reflektor, this music is colossal. You need a dozen musicians, all singing and playing instruments, to create it, and ideally that chorus will be joined by thousands more. The opportunities for "woah-ohs" and background vowels are plentiful in the Arcade Fire catalogue. So are lyrics like "People say that your dreams are the only things that save you" -- which is not a hopeful sentiment, but it sure feels like one when you're shouting it with several thousand other people.

The spectacle of a massive show is important, for sure, but it can only take you so far without a catalogue of hits and songs that sound like hits. Just ask the Flaming Lips, a band that's doing just fine on the festival circuit and gets plenty of headlines for frequently naked shenanigans but haven't released an album that managed much more than novelty in over ten years.

And then there are the people in this band, a kinetic bunch of supremely talented and generous musicians led by a hard-edged Canadian firework and her husband, a boyish Texan built like a European power forward. The Texan, Win Butler, was not at his best at the Pepsi Center. "I've been deathly ill the past three days, so if you could help me out on this one, that would be great," he said before starting "The Suburbs."

"This song is called..." and here he looked out at the crowd, grinning. "The...the Pepsi Center."

We were happy to help him out on that one. The lyrics are already mostly in the first person plural anyway. And it didn't much matter whether you were dressed up or wearing a mask or just a T-shirt and jeans. This felt like a story being written rather than one being told.  

The Arcade Fire is the greatest arena rock band on the planet
Isa Jones

So, yes, I stand by it: The Arcade Fire is the greatest arena rock band on the planet. It must be said, however, that it is definitely not the most popular arena rock band on the planet. There were enough unsold tickets that the tour instructed ushers to offer anyone sitting in the upper deck a free upgrade to the stands closest to the floor. I suspect, though, that if this band had just taken the formula of Funeral and made it progressively more accessible over the last four albums, there wouldn't have been an empty seat in the building. Instead, the Arcade Fire has been almost deliberitely confounding, and if that's what it takes to kindle the bandmembers' deep faith in this whole enterprise, then the empty seats are worth it.

The show, like those individual songs, started at "up." The stratosphere, then, was a wild sequence involving a John Denver cover, the mountaintop shout that is "Wake Up," and an explosion of confetti so enormous that the floor of the Pepsi Center's lobby, separated from the actual arena by thick curtains, a hallway and a long flight of stairs, was coated with thin strips of paper as people left the building.

Matt drove down with his friend from Greeley for the show. He's not even a particularly big Arcade Fire fan, but it's his friend's birthday, so Matt put on a bow tie for the first time in his life and made the trip south. He was waiting by the merch table, his bow tie undone, a smile on his face. "I feel like this is one of those shows I'll be talking about for years," he said. I asked him what he'd be talking about, specifically.

"I appreciate the culture they're trying to cultivate," he said. "And it will be 'that time I went to the rock show with the dress code.'"

The Arcade Fire is the greatest arena rock band on the planet

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