The cavernous Barclays Center is ideal for sports and political conventions and WWE, but not particularly well-suited for complex indie rock; last year I cringed as the massive box swallowed up Thom Yorke's side project Atoms for Peace, and this weekend it was Arcade Fire's turn to be devoured by the void, with much of their artfully layered sound reduced to muddy, sonic gruel. It was certainly loud enough—my jeans were vibrating from the bass for most of the show—but a tinny white noise slapback echo prevailed on the high end, and the band's myriad members added up to less than the sum of their parts.
Still, it was a pretty exhilarating show. Ever since they burst on the scene a decade ago, Arcade Fire has reveled in theatricality, and their evolution into arena rock dance band has simply allowed them a bigger canvas to play with. Audiences on their seemingly endless Reflektor tour have been encouraged to attend in creative formal wear, and concertgoers brought plenty of flair to the three night Barclays stand. (Even Paul Krugman dressed to impress.) Glittering confetti cannons, a giant disco ball, and elaborately costumed dancers made the show feel more like a festival than a concert.
The reunited Unicorns and a typically ebullient Dan Deacon set the stage for the Canadians, who appeared wearing their signature oversized papier-mâché puppet heads. I don't know how many people are in Arcade Fire at this point—dozens? thousans?—but the band's center of gravity is still everyone's favorite emo husband-and-wife duo, Win Butler and wife Régine Chassagne, who still appear to be very much in love with each other and their jobs. Chassange sings like a haunted punk rock angel with a giant heart and bangs the drums like she's raising the dead, while Butler holds forth center stage with the same volcanic intensity he brought to the band's NYC debut at CMJ in 2004. (His brother Will Butler, meanwhile, ricochets around like a child prodigy on a sugar high.)
Saturday's 90 minute set was packed with exuberant, danceable anthems spanning their career, accented with gleeful showmanship; a second stage in the middle of the room was periodically filled by costumed backup dancers and, in one of the evening's highlights, Chassange sang "It's Never Over" across the room to Butler in a riveting call-and-response. But for me the show didn't really catch fire (sorry) until the encore, which began with a costumed Talking Heads cover band playing Psycho Killer on the second stage until Arcade Fire returned to introduce drummer Marky Ramone, who played drums for two ripping Ramones' covers: "I Don't Wanna Go Down To The Basement" and "I Wanna Be Sedated." (On Friday night they were joined by Buster Poindexter, a.k.a. NY Dolls frontman David Johansen, and on Sunday night David Byrne sat in.)
The whole surreal evening came to a thunderous climax with "Here Comes the Nighttime," "Power Out," and "Wake Up," which turned into a giant sing-a-long that, collectively, finally transcended the arena's daunting acoustics and made the massive room feel suddenly intimate. Great bands have a way of doing that, and Arcade Fire—which has always seemed more at home playing churches, sidewalks and warehouses—is particularly good at subverting the conventions of the codified rock concert experience. And as an added treat, Butler announced that they'd booked the arena for an extra hour and hired a DJ to keep the dance party going. "You should really stick around and dance," he told the crowd. "Seriously, it's costing us a lot of money."