For some reason, I couldn’t order a single pre-pay in the pre-sale for Cublet on this night, so I went for the print-at-home option. I’m glad those options exist, but I’m still old school in liking the pre-printed tickets. At least this gives a differentiating visual.
152. Ready To Start: Arcade Fire, Ottawa Bluesfest, Lebreton Flats, Ottawa, Ontario, Tuesday July 13, 2010, $50
After attending Ottawa Bluesfest annually for close to a decade, I’ve come to expect that a series of archetypes will play out via the performances of each year’s featured artists. As Week Two kicked off after a mid-festival Monday break for both staff and punters (btw, great idea, Bluesfestfolk!—it’s a relief to be able for all to take a pause and come back refreshed), many of them have already materialized for me.
There is the gig that was every bit as good as I hoped it might be (The B-52s); the gig that I thought was going to be poor or mediocre and ended up surprising me with a superb performance (Hole and, later on, Crowded House—up next in this series); and sometimes even the gig that I had high hopes for that even exceeded my expectations (The Flaming Lips).
Finally, there is the gig that I was hugely geared up for—and found it to be a letdown of sorts. Past Bluesfest recipients of my personal Meh-Not-Yay honour include Steely Dan (no.129), Wilco (no.113), Iron & Wine (no.139), and The Drive-By Truckers (no.144). And this year, the “Award” goes to Montreal’s Arcade Fire.
Not that this was a bad gig. The final portion of closing numbers and encores were stunning. However, I found the first two thirds of the show to be surprisingly uninvolving. I couldn’t and can’t quite put my finger on it, but it felt as if all the best intentions and energy were there but it just struck me as flat.
This came as a surprise as I had been anticipating an exceptional set. One by one, everyone I know who has seen them live has come away with an almost messianic responses to the AC. And, next to the following night’s performance by Santana, this was probably one of the most eagerly anticipated sets of the 2010 festival. It is incredible that the Fire reside a mere two hours from Ottawa (and include Ottawanians Richard Parry and Jeremy Gara, who felt the love and went down and broke bread with the crowd at the show’s conclusion) yet this was their first headlining gig here in the National Capital since their worldwide ascension in 2004. Their only other large scale appearance of note was their well received opening slot for U2 here in 2005 at the then-Corel Centre (now ScotiaBank Place), the same venue where Win Butler and Régine Chassagne also joined Bruce Springsteen onstage for his “State Trooper” and a version of AF’s “Keep the Car Running” that same year.
This was undoubtedly one of the prestige gigs of this year’s ‘Fest. I always love the vibe at these types of appearances where the crowd is just hungry for it, particularly just prior to the opening moments—you can palpably feeling the electricity buzzing in the air.
As for me, however, I’ve never been fully sure how I felt about Arcade Fire and their recordings. I will agree that the highlights on 2004’s Funeral—including “Rebellion (Lies)” and “Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)” —are truly great, but the album is uneven to me. As for the follow-up, Neon Bible from 2007, I thought it was a more consistent disc, even if it didn’t quite have the peaks of Funeral’s best moments, although “My Body Is A Cage” and the re-recording of “No Cars Go” come close.
Still, I took that consistency as a good sign, indicating to me that they could have the right spirit it takes to pull this off over the long haul. But not everyone perhaps saw it that way. Consider this pre-show conversation between a thirtysomething couple close by (a first date, maybe?):
He: Funeral was one of those CDs I would play over and over from start to finish for a long period of time and just never get sick of it. It’s one of my favourite discs of the last several years.
She: It always reminds me of that fall when I bought it. I would play it on my discman and go out for walks listening to it. So it always brings back memories for me.
He: What did you think if Neon Bible?
She: You know, I never bought it.
He: I played it three times.
She: And now they have a new one coming out and I haven’t even heard that last one yet.
He: Yeah, it’s called The Suburbs. It will really show us whether they can do something on the level of Funeral again. Or not.
So it is with some avidity for both band and followers that the Arcade Fire dropped its third full length effort, The Suburbs, on August 2nd to uniformly rave reviews. This gig took place several weeks prior to the release, so the assembled mass was hearing forthcoming highlights for the first time in conjunction with tracks from the first two albums. My reaction to the new material was largely a shrug.
While the instrument-swapping ensemble kicked off the night to a feverish crowd with two new numbers (“Ready To Start” and “Month of May”), it was the following versions of “Neighbourhood” #1 & #2 that garnered the night’s first big woo-hoos of recognition. “We’re called the Arcade Fire from Montreal, Quebec, Canada” stated the otherwise largely tight-lipped Butler to a cheering crowd of 30,000. “We don’t know any blues songs but this song’s called ‘No Cars Go’,” before charging into a spirited performance of the tune that appeared initially on their self-titled 2003 EP, momentarily clicking things into high gear. But this song aside, for the first two-thirds of the set I just wasn’t feeling it despite an appearance of intense fervor. Clearly, I wasn’t in the majority here but I just didn’t seem to connect.
A YouTube video featuring highlights from Arcade Fire’s July 13th, 2010 performance at Ottawa Bluesfest.
Régine stepped from behind the drum kit to centre stage mid-set, fronting the band on Funeral’s “Haiti” and then “Empty Room” from The Suburbs, the one with the great violin opening that sounds like the Psycho theme on speed. Many have talked to me in the past about how much she sounds like Björk (an artist I love) but I could never really make the connection. Cor blimey, do I ever when I hear her live, to a distracting degree.
It wasn’t until the last third of the evening—11 songs into the set—that the spirit of the performance geared up to the level of ascending traction that I’d been expecting, starting with “Keep The Car Running” followed by new song “We Used To Wait,” and the main set’s conclusion, a double juggernaut of Funeral’s “Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)” and “Rebellion (Lies).”
Returning to lead the audience through Happy Birthday for a band member (the second time during the festival that I participated in doing so, following a serenade to Courtney Love the previous Friday night on her 46th), they maintained the mood with encores “Intervention” and “Wake Up.”
This is what I had been waiting for but, as with Steely Dan two years earlier closing out their night by delivering a scorching encore of my personal favourite, “Kid Charlemagne,” these final numbers should have been where the show began, not ended. The Arcade Fire may have launched their set with The Suburbs’ “Ready To Start,” but for me that title didn’t truly come to life for me until this last third of the night’s performance.
Arcade Fire close out the night with “Wake Up” from Funeral. The person who shot this vid also filmed the post-gig exit out from the site and into the streets. I like that the person left this whole part of the gig-going ritual in the video.
This set and the eventual release of their new album a few weeks later didn’t provide me with any resolution to my somewhat ambiguous feelings about the band. It seems that when I hear their best tracks one at a time I really enjoy them. In the months following this gig, I had the titular cut from The Suburbs on my rotating iPod playlist of current faves (A List Tunes, I call it) and cranked it each time it came on. At the time, I initially thought that this third long player may have been their best, despite my reaction to the live presentations. Two years on, and several listens later (and Grammys and all that) and I’ve changed my tune and still think it’s patchy.
Contrast that with the cache of top shelf new releases that also appeared that had already appeared by that point that year that I’m still engaged with, including LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings’ I Learned the Hard Way, Caribou’s Swim, and, best of all, Broken Social Scene’s Forgiveness Rock Record (a fellow No. 1 album here in Canada along with ‘Burbs, and I think they do this “collective” thing a whole lot better than AC, btw) or discs like the previous year’s Merriweather Post Pavillion by Animal Collective or Grizzly Bear’sVeckatimest. It’s a personal thing, but when it comes to the long form, AC just don’t hit me on that same level despite, as I pointed out earlier, seeming to have all the right elements and intentions. I guess I like them better in bite-sized chunks.
Perhaps I was still coming down from that Flaming Lips gig. Or perhaps the band were having an off night. Or perhaps it’s simply down to a personal bias. I won’t know until I see them again live. But, given the audience response and the rave reviews the show garnered in the local press, I’m betting on the latter. That’s something you’ll have to take into account when assessing what I’ve had to say.
Despite the strong concluding portion, both Cublet and I felt a sense of anti-climax to this gig as we headed on out into the streets surrounding the Bluesfest site, packed with playing street musicians as always. This year, a trio of 10 year old-ish tykes—the Dubé Brothers as I found out they are called—were out there night after night playing classic rock covers, raising money for Haitian relief efforts (notably a cause close to the heart of AC’s Régine owing to her Haitian heritage, with a dedication on The Suburbs reading “en solidarité avec le people d’Haiti”). As we walked by post-gig, the rockin’ juniors were pounding out a cover of Gun’n’Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and I, along with a large gathered group, indulged my inner-Axl by joining in on the mass screeching of the familiar chorus by the cluster of Rose impersonators.
Unfortunately, we missed the bigger excitement later when the Arcade Fire joined in on the fun after noticing the kidlets charging through a version of “Twist and Shout.” Win & crew joined them out in the street, singing along before everyone else jumped in, astonished to see the band hanging out post-gig. Just missed it. Damn.
The Dubé Brothers raised $83,000 for the earthquake victims during the run of the festival. Well done lads!
The Arcade Fire, post-show and in the Ottawa streets with The Dubé Brothers, raising money for Haitian relief.
NOTE: I simultaneously cross-post over on my Open Salon blog, where I also have a deeper backlog of entries.
© 2010/12 VariousArtists