Arcade Fire is the nostalgic epicenter of indie-rock — it knows this, it performs it theatrically, and it performs it well. The band thrives on its fans’ emotional attachment to the vulnerability of its early releases that have undoubtedly influenced indie music as a whole. But, with its “Infinite Content” tour, the band tried to venture into an ineffective meta-critique alongside older fan favorites — and the two don’t always mesh.
Arcade Fire played its first San Francisco show at the Bottom of the Hill while touring for its first full album, the now well-loved Funeral, in 2004. Since then, it has released four other LPs, won more than 20 awards internationally and continues to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to end the cycle of poverty in Haiti.
Last Saturday night, thousands of fans sang along to “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” the first track from that first LP. This was the only moment that lighting was minimal that night — no flashing strobes or brilliant disco balls filled Oracle Arena — instead, the energy of the band and its fans electrified the performance.
The show peaked when the band focused on the music, with multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne delivering her ethereal vocals and dynamic performance and frontman Win Butler sharing personal stories.
Win Butler dedicated the band’s performance of “The Suburbs” to his son, while the band’s film, “Scenes from the Suburbs,” played overhead. Directed by Spike Jonze, the dystopian short features the subdued story of three teenagers living (surprise) in a suburb just as a culture war turns into a physical battle. From there, the performance mirrored the album’s flawless transition from “The Suburbs” into “Ready to Start.”
Without missing a beat or taking a break, the band transitioned right into “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” which truly highlights Chassagne’s jaw-dropping vocal range, even more than the high-pitched “Electric Blue” from earlier in the night. As she sang, fluorescent strobes and a pair of disco balls filled the arena with dazzling light that still couldn’t top the vocal powerhouse that is Régine Chassagne. Both she and Win Butler left the stage at different intervals of the show to dance with the crowd.
Later in the night, Win Butler implored the Bay Area crowd to continue its artistically driven activist projects. “We need you, we actually need you,” pleaded Win Butler. “For the sake of all of us, keep this shit strange and keep fighting.”
“Please, keep the fucking counterculture in this great area,” he continued while plucking the first notes of “Neon Bible,” the soft title track of the band’s second album. As the band picked up the song and began to play, the overhead screens asked the crowd to turn on the flashlights of their phones. Soon, Oracle turned into a swaying galaxy of light, as Chassagne’s image, marked by her red leather bodysuit and white gloves, filled the screen.
The band still suffered a bit from the tour’s dependence on Everything Now for its theme — fans didn’t respond as energetically to newer tracks as they did to older “classics.” Opening the night with “Everything Now,” in particular, was a rough start.
It appears that, on this “Infinite Content” tour, Arcade Fire is trying to compensate for its comparatively lackluster new album, Everything Now. The band would have benefitted if it had focused on building intimacy with the crowd rather than brandishing the tour’s messy gimmick — confused capitalist critique and an ephemeral theme of boxing.
Before the band made its entrance, the night was moderated by a corny space cowboy. The digital apparition made finger guns at the audience via digital screens at the center of the arena and spouted lines such as, “Will anyone believe you were here if you don’t have a souvenir?”
The gimmick was out of place and in strange taste — likely intended to be a critique of overly campy consumer culture — but was nonetheless a bothersome way to introduce an otherwise outstanding show.
Of all the songs off of Everything Now, “Creature Comfort” seemed to strike the most zealous chord with the crowd. Perhaps this was because the crowd’s energy was allowed to build as the stage filled with fog and a short film played above the band: In it, the musicians light an empty room on fire, marked only with lyrics “EVERYTHING NOW” and “MAKE IT PAINLESS” on the walls. When the film faded, Arcade Fire dropped right into the synthy tune of “Creature Comfort” — and the crowd met the only cathartic tune on Everything Now with roaring waves of cheers.
After closing the night with “Wake Up,” perhaps its best-known track, the band marched through the crowd while singing the famous hymn of the song’s chorus and banging on tambourines.