Early on in Arcade Fire’s set at Judson Church, someone in the crowd shouted out, “Why a church?” The room was intimate enough for perplexed front man Win Butler to hear it and respond with his own question: “Why would you even ask that? Why not?”
They say there are no stupid questions, but, well, the band’s new album is called Neon Bible and features, on many tracks, church organ layered in with lyrics (available at their site) such as “Don’t wanna fight in a holy war, Don’t want the salesman knocking at my door, I don’t wanna live in America no more… World War III, when are you coming for me?” (Butler’s Texan by birth, Canadian by the grace of God.)
Thankfully, the album is much too open and evocative to be interpreted as just another righteous polemic against evangelical warmongering. At turns brooding and majestic, Neon Bible is charged with longing for a fearsome freedom most of us have a hard time digesting even when we’re gorging on it.
Live, the songs shake off much of their gloom and combust with a sort of Dionysian fervor. Arcade Fire has always been an infectiously jubilant live band, with almost too many people crowded on stage and a manic exuberance that’s culminated, at past shows, in fake fist-fights, drum rolls on helmeted heads and musical parades through the crowd. This is the band that was seen busking at the Union Square subway entrance in the dead of night and rocking high school cafeterias in their hometown. So asking ‘why a church?’ is a bit like asking Jerry Lewis ‘why a telethon?’. It’s just how they roll.
The proudly progressive Judson Church is refreshingly short on gruesome iconography; their website features two men and a child waving the gay flag. It’s about the size of Bowery Ballroom (the balcony was closed), there are no pews and, last night at least, sacred, sin-cleansing beer was sold. High above the stage – er, altar – an illuminated circle of stained glass depicts a winged lion with a halo, among other nice things. Beneath it was hung a huge flashing neon bible; a smaller version of their now-signature graphic was also projected on the bass drum.
For a band that’s spent years on the road (since breaking wide at CMJ in 2004) there’s another advantage to playing a run of gigs in churches: the rooms are so small that anyone lucky enough to score a ticket is going to be gushing with gratitude just to be there – no matter what’s played. The older songs that the band’s toured to death can be completely supplanted by the untested stuff and the crowd will still stay securely in their hip pocket. (It certainly worked for Radiohead on their recent theater tour.) And then, of course, there’s the buzz, which Arcade Fire so desperately needs at this point. Why isn't anyone blogging about this?
So, in keeping with their church shows in London and Montreal, their opening night in New York was predominantly Neon Bible, which worked out just fine because it happens to be a phenomenal album. With its high ceilings, Judson Church is a less than ideal acoustical setting, but the sound mix was remarkably nuanced, especially considering all the instruments firing at once. And anyone lucky enough to get in – tickets for all five nights sold out in a nanosecond and were being scalped for upwards of $200 – would have to be exquisitely uptight to gripe about the room’s acoustics.
The current ten piece Arcade Fire extravaganza, which includes accordion, strings, French horns, keyboards, Moog, upright bass, drums, extra percussion and torn paper, stormed through a short but magnificent one hour set, plus encore. They lit the fuse with Keep the Car Running and played almost the entire Neon Bible without looking back. But as good as the new stuff sounded, the biggest tear-the-house-down section of the evening was the blistering Power Out that breathlessly segued into Rebellion. Lord have mercy.
Special mention must be made of Régine Chassagne, who is so darn talented and charming you just want to eat her with a spoon. (A bit problematic, as she happens to be Butler’s wife.) Whether singing in French, grinning, or racing around the stage to play accordion, keyboard, drums or hurdy gurdy(thanks, Rashmi), she lights up the room with an electric vivacity. She seems to be having the time of her life up there, which makes it even easier for us to have the time of our life down here.
Arcade Fire has concluded their previous church shows elsewhere by emerging into the lobby (or outside) post-encore for an acoustic Wake Up or Guns of Brixton. Though a snowy night on Washington Square seemed an ideal setting for such a thing, the crowd who waited outside for thirty minutes walked away empty handed. It could be the band came out and started playing right after we turned the corner, in which case we’d rather not hear about it, thank you very much.