I’ve been to a lot of concerts through the years. In my best estimation, I’ve attended nearly 100 concerts by nationally touring artists and at least 15 festivals. I’ve seen legends and newcomers, hit-makers and relative unknowns.
Yet my favorite concert experience came on Sunday night as finally saw Arcade Fire perform live.
For many years, Arcade Fire has been in the top five on my list of musical acts I want to see in concert. When I saw they were performing in Las Vegas only one week after my 39th birthday, I told my wife, Cammie, that I had a great idea for a birthday present. I knew they would be good but I still wasn’t prepared for the complete sensory experience Arcade Fire brought with them.
Admittedly it was a little strange going to a concert at Mandalay Bay Events Center less than a month after the horrific mass shooting at the resort’s festival grounds. And perhaps that’s why the venue was nowhere close to selling out.
But we were not going to be afraid. And neither was Arcade Fire.
We arrived just as the doors were opening and soon found ourselves with plenty of options for viewing the band with our general admission tickets. Because Arcade Fire planned to perform in the round, there were still plenty of “front row” spots left on two of the four sides of the stage. We staked out a couple of spots on one side and settled in for the next 45 minutes as we waited for the opening act, Angel Olsen, who performs a shoegaze style of dream pop that falls somewhere between Beach House and Camera Obscura.
While I enjoyed Angel’s music and the classy look of her five-piece backing band, the soft and slow music all started to sound the same after a while. As far as opening acts go, it could have been worse but they definitely weren’t as dynamic as Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas, the last opening act we saw in Vegas (2015 Gogol Bordello concert at Brooklyn Bowl).
As Angel Olsen finished her set, the stage crew began spreading out the massive collection of instruments that the members of Arcade Fire apparently intended to play. I was eager to see how this concert in the round thing would work. Would all of the band members move around the stage or would we just have a couple of them facing us? Either way, I was excited to have a front-row view of at least two or three musicians.
However, when they put up ropes around the stage like those that are used at boxing rings, we began to wonder what was going to happen. After some really odd announcements, the boxing ring-style stage began to make sense. The band suddenly appeared on the video screens above the stage and the announcer introduced them as if they were boxers. They ran through the crowd and up between the ropes to the stage.
Then it began.
What followed was more than two hours of pure bliss. It was the most immersive, entertaining energetic and joyful concert experience of my life.
I knew I would like the music. After all, this is the band that counts songs like “No Cars Go” and “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” among its catalogue. They are, perhaps, the only band to rival U2 for ownership of the term “anthemic.”
Still, most of my favorite Arcade Fire songs come from their first three albums. I still have an uneasy relationship with 2013’s “Reflektor.” And while I enjoy the new album, “Everything Now,” I’m partial to the band’s earlier, more organic sound.
Live, however, the new music was just as good as the old. They kicked off with the Abba-esque title track from “Everything Now” and I was instantly transported heavenward. Even the “Reflektor”-era tunes were fantastic.
Quickly we learned that one of the best parts of seeing Arcade Fire live is Will Butler. We realized this partway through “Rebellion (Lies)” as he grabbed single drum and pranced around on stage, banging away at the drum with abandon and jumping into the boxing ring ropes. (“Maybe that’s why they have the ropes,” Cammie said to me.)
Later in the night as Will was dancing around with a tambourine, Cammie leaned over and told me was her favorite. And his joy was contagious. Whether he was playing bass, keyboards or percussion, Will Butler made us want to move and join in his dance of joy.
I’m also now a fan of the concert-in-the-round idea, especially when you have a band as talented as Arcade Fire. At the center of the stage a rotating platform housed two drum sets and a white piano. Drummer Jeremy Gara spent most of the night behind one of the sets as it revolved around the stage but most of the band are multi-instrumentalists so they were all over the place, including Gara who played bass (I think) for a few songs when Régine Chassagne took over the beats. Both of them even played drums through a couple of songs.
Frontman Win Butler (Will’s brother and Régine’s husband) traveled the stage, performing toward all four sides but often perching himself atop the turntable at the center of the stage and playing a variety of instruments, including guitar, piano, bass and mandolin.
It was Win who addressed the shooting, offering the band’s condolences to those who were injured and who lost loved ones. Then he acknowledged how we had all gathered there at Mandalay Bay only a few weeks later to once again celebrate the art of music. “F— being afraid,” he said, to screams of agreement from the crowd. Then he dedicated the song “Keep the Car Running,” to the victims of the shooting.
Régine was also fascinating to watch through the night as she played keytar, standard keyboards, drums and even wine bottles at one point. She also sang lead on a few songs, including the buoyant “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains,” where she ascended the turntable like her husband.
Another favorite moment came as Win launched into “Ready to Start,” which has one of my all-time-favorite Arcade Fire lines. So naturally I shouted along with Win as he sang, “Businessmen drink my blood / Like the kids in art school said they would.”
The other band members performed on various guitars and keyboards while also adding horns and a violin to the mix as they rotated around the stage.
As the regular set finished, the band still had not played its signature anthem, “Wake Up,” so it was obvious that an encore was the works. When they returned, they started off softly with the gentle but magnificent “We Don’t Deserve Love,” from the new album, which fades into a reprise of “Everything Now.”
This all built up to the pure primal energy of “Wake Up” — the primary reason I wanted to see Arcade Fire live. It’s one of the most effervescent and jubilant anthems I’ve ever heard. And I knew it would have even more life in a live setting with the entire audience singing along to the wordless chorus. It did not disappoint.
In fact, that song alone might have made the Arcade Fire concert my favorite live music experience. We were just lucky enough to have a full set from these nine talented multi-instrumentalists who seemed to care as much about putting on an entertaining show as they did for performing with passion. Add a fantastic light show, a pretty cool crowd and the chance to consume it all with my wife by my side, and it’s the perfect recipe for what live music should be.
We left the concert feeling alive. My feet were sore but I still wanted to dance (and I don’t like to dance). The joy of experiencing the art and beauty of music enlivened my own creativity and made me want to sit down right there and work on my novel or my play.
But, alas, we had a long drive home from Vegas to St. George. At least I had the leftover energy from the concert to keep me awake for the trip.
Brian’s Top 10 Concerts
10: Brian Wilson at Abravanal Hall, Salt Lake City, Utah (2016)
9: The Postal Service at Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas, Nevada (2013)
8: Ben Folds with the Utah Symphony at Deer Valley, Utah (2014)
7: Imogen Heap at the House of Blues, Las Vegas, Nevada (2006)
6: Fictionist double set at Jazzy’s, St. George, Utah (2010?)
5: Willie Nelson at Tuacahn, Ivins, Utah (2014)
4: Paul McCartney at Energy Solutions Arena, Salt Lake City, Utah (2014)
3: Radiohead at the Gorge, George, Washington (2001)
2: Carrie Rodriguez at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Kanab, Utah (2012)
1: Arcade Fire at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, Las Vegas, Nevada (2017)
Brian’s 10 Favorite Festival Performances
10: Daft Punk at Vegoose, Las Vegas, Nevada (2007)
9: Gogol Bordello at Vegoose, Las Vegas, Nevada (2007)
8: The Roots at Vegoose, Las Vegas, Nevada (2006)
7: Sarah McLachlan at Lilith Fair, St. Louise (2010)
6: The Killers at Vegoose, Las Vegas, Nevada (2006)
5: Rage Against the Machine at Vegoose, Las Vegas, Nevada (2007)
4: Mary J. Blige at Lilith Fair, St. Louise (2010)
3: Pearl Jam at Rally Against Hunger, Seattle, Washington (2001)
2: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers at Vegoose, Las Vegas, Nevada (2006)
1: R.E.M. at Rally Against Hunger, Seattle, Washington (2001)
Brian’s Top 10 Wishlist (Classic Artists)
9: The Smiths (reunited)
8: Ringo Starr
7: Fleetwood Mac (classic lineup)
6: David Gilmour (solo)
5: John Fogerty
4: Neil Young
3: Bruce Springsteen
2: Led Zeppelin (reunited)
1: Pink Floyd (reunited)
Brian’s Top 10 Wishlist (Contemporary Artists)
10: Grizzly Bear
8: St. Vincent
6: Cloud Cult
4: The National
3: Jason Isbell
2: Bon Iver
1: Andrew Bird