Review: Arcade Fire at Air Canada Centre on March 13, 2014

A funny thing happened last year: Arcade Fire started taking themselves a little less seriously. The Canadian indie rockers created a fictional band, took dance music head-on, appeared in a bizarre NBC concert special and began donning face paint and colourful suits. It was an obvious response to critics who’ve labeled them as “self-important” or “pretentious” over the years. It might also explain why our infamous mayor made a “cameo” during their show at the Air Canada Centre on March 13.

The band’s newfound sense of humour was apparent months before the concert even took place, when a mandatory dress code was installed. Around 14,000 fans went to see Arcade Fire last Thursday night, many wearing suits, dresses or black jeans. But walking around the stadium, it was impossible not to spot the brave few who decided to arrive in costume (gnomes, old prom dresses, Fred and Wilma Flintstone, just to name a few).

The idea that it was no regular concert was proved further by the two opening acts: Montreal-based DJ, Kid Koala, and goofy electronic musician, Dan Deacon. Kid Koala warmed things up first, spinning tracks by the xx, De La Soul, TNGHT, and playing a modified version of “Moon River.” Dan Deacon, on the other hand, took to the stage with a complex light show, bantering with audience members like a comedian and encouraging the crowd to start a dance contest.

By the time Win Butler and company appeared and played a subdued version of “My Body Is A Cage,” the party was on. Along with their regular line-up, frequent collaborators Sarah Neufeld and Owen Pallett joined the band, as well as a pair of percussionists and saxophone players. “Thanks for dressing up,” Butler said.

Arcade Fire played 20 songs, including a cover of the Constantines’ “Young Lions.” Even if their setlist felt a little too predictable, a few surprises were played, including “Joan of Arc,” the beautiful “Haiti,” their hipster critic in song “Rococo,” and “modern kids.” And while Arcade Fire played eight songs from their most recent album, Reflektor, the tracks that got the most enthusiastic reactions were almost always from their earlier releases.

For a band as grandiose as Arcade Fire, the concert’s most memorable moments were the smaller ones. The transition between the feedback-laden conclusion of “Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)” and the opening piano lines of “Rebellion (Lies)” was an early highlight, as was the dramatic call-and-response from the end of “No Cars Go.” When the band closed the show with perennial fan favourite “Wake Up,” they decided to stop playing midway and let the audience sing the wordless chorus themselves.

However, the show did have its weaker spots. The performance of “Reflektor,” one of the finest songs of 2013, would’ve been spectacular if it weren’t for the horrible sound. Later on in the night, Butler and co-lead singer and wife, Régine Chassagne, performed “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” from opposite sides of the stadium. Chassagne was accompanied by dancers in Orpheus-styled skeleton costumes. The theatricality didn’t add anything at all.

Throughout the night, Arcade Fire walked a thin line between playfulness and earnestness. The fictitious band The Reflektors crashed the encore and briefly performed a song called “Ban Marriage,” while earlier, frontman Butler gave a brief speech regarding American ignorance. “It’s easy to forget this little bastion of liberalness,” he said, right before the opening synth lines of “We Exist.”

Perhaps the most surreal moment of the night was the aforementioned cameo by Rob Ford–a man was brought onto the stage wearing a headpiece with a looped projection of Ford laughing, right before “Normal Person.”

The band has come a long way since its Grammy win for Album of the Year in 2011. Arcade Fire still play like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Their songs are still filled with big ideas, but for the first time, they looked and sounded like they were having as much fun as their audience was.

Arcade Fire will return to Toronto again and play a show at the Molson Amphitheatre on Aug. 29.

Photo by Nadya Domingo.