Arcade Fire, the four-year-old Montreal indie band that has made fans of David Bowie and David Byrne, may now be the most important rock group in the world. On the final two nights of its five-week North American Neon Bible tour June 1 and 2 at the Greek Theatre, eleven capable musicians were one writhing, singing, strumming soul onstage. But the real magic came as they fused sell-out audiences of more than eight thousand people into ecstatic masses who sang and danced and cheered more deeply than perhaps they ever had before. When Neon Bible was released in March, ravenous fans and frenzied press had already deemed it the most anticipated new release of the year. Kids and critics clamored for an advance taste of a new track over file-sharing networks, while media from The New Yorker to Pitchfork employed all the metaphors and religious allusions they could to summon the majesty of the moment. In 2004, following the release of Arcade Fire's spectacular first full-length, Funeral, Pitchfork made the band one of the most-hyped of the digital music era. The second, more urgent, wave of adulation propelled Neon Bible's first-week sales to 92,000 units and the No. 2 slot on the Billboard 200, trouncing Funeral's climb to No. 131.
Arcade Fire songs are about feeling something and running with it. Twice on Saturday night, members of the band scrambled up a fifty-foot latticed stage support with instruments in tow. One carried his drumsticks halfway up and rapped on the metal structure as if it were a drum: a display of arena rock showmanship infused with the childlike joy that characterizes the group's live show. Arcade Fire is equally adept at sadness. Funeral is rooted in the deaths of family members, and Neon Bible, recorded and self-produced in a church in Montreal, feels even darker. Neon Bible, neon Bible/Not much chance for survival frontman Win Butler chants on the title track. Closing song "My Body Is a Cage" is expressly funereal, with gothic organs swarming over a shattered death march. Set my spirit free, set my body free, he sings.
Built on word of mouth and signed to sturdy independent label Merge, Arcade Fire embodies the future of an embattled industry. The musical mass market is disappearing, and the bond the band shares with its fans is the new real deal. A fervent, albeit niche audience cherishes Arcade Fire for the plain reason that its music is, almost without exception, rapturous, cathartic, and profound. That's all fans and the band will ever need - not a major label contract or a new sound or the support of Bowie and Byrne or even Bono. "This is a song about how people believe in whatever shit they wanna believe in," Butler said Saturday to introduce new track "The Well and the Lighthouse" - and much of the audience believed in him.
The entire crowd sprang to its feet for "Rebellion (Lies)," Funeral's lead single. No one knew it yet, but this was the last song of the set, the moment the whole concert had been impeccably approaching. When it ended and the band left the stage, something extraordinary happened. Instead of clapping or cheering for an encore, without provocation the audience began to intone, in perfect harmony, the violin melody from the end of the song. It must've looped twenty times. The crowd plucked the tune from the air and claimed it as its own, as much in a call for the band to come back as in a spontaneous expression of joy and togetherness.
The musicians reappeared after a few minutes and the moment passed, yet in a sense it never really did. "Thanks for a very memorable night," Butler said between the ensuing two encore songs. He was right again. It must've been the best show we had ever seen.