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Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Sprawl

Arcade Fire, Janelle Monáe and The Sadies at Olympic Island in Toronto

Photo By Frank YangFrank YangTwo months isn’t an exceptionally long time by most standards, but for Montreal’s Arcade Fire, it seems like a lifetime. It was only that long ago that the band played two theatre shows at the Danforth, closing out a week wherein the band emerged from their post-Neon Bible seclusion to play a series of intimate shows previewing their third record The Suburbs, the Toronto shows the largest of those but still grossly undersized.

I tried to capture the atmosphere at that time in my writeup of the first of those shows but in a nutshell, the question was one of would the band be able to recover from or top Neon Bible, depending on your opinion of their sophomore effort, on any of artistic, critical or retail terms, and remain arguably the biggest and/or most important rock band in Canada right now. The answer came in the form of tremendous critical response, massive sold out shows across the continent and most quantitatively, #1 records in Canada, the United States and United Kingdom – success by any standard.

So their show on Saturday on the Toronto Islands, a setting typically reserved for festival-type events but one of the only locales in the city capable of handling the size of crowds that they were sure to draw. And while the bill was only three bands deep, the breadth of genre, experience and buzz represented would have rivaled any larger festival – in the span of just over four hours, concert-goers would be transported from the countryside to the suburbs via Metropolis. And get to ride a boat.

The Sadies have been around for what seems like forever and are hardly reclusive when it comes to playing out, and yet one suspects that many to most of those thousands who showed up early enough to catch their set had never heard of them let alone witnessed the Nudie suit spectacle that is a live Sadies show. And while I’ve never gotten the sense that mass popularity was on The Sadies’ agenda, they’re probably not unhappy about the attention they’re now getting thanks to the Polaris shortlisting of their latest record Darker Circles. As such, their set was them putting their best county-punk-psych foot forward, treating the audience to a good balance of their more recent works of refined songwriting and old-school guitar pyrotechnics, bringing out their mother to sing on “There’s A Higher Power” and dropping jaws with the show-stopping “Ridge Runner Rell”. There was no way to not be impressed.

The same could be said for funk-soul-r&b-rock firecracker Janelle Monáe, making her Canadian debut in front of a crowd that probably wouldn’t fall under her primary target demographic. But when you’re riding and album as excellently all-over-the-place as The ArchAndroid, maybe there’s no such thing as a primary target demographic – except for everyone. Following an introduction by Win Butler, perhaps to butter the crowd up with an AF seal of approval, Monáe’s band took the stage to “Suite II Overture”, followed by three figures in large black hooded cloaks, backs to the audience, swaying to the opening of “Dance Or Die”. And midway through that opener, the cloak came off and it was game on. Monáe came with a reputation for stellar live performances and indeed, her show was everything you could hope for.

Her signature bouffant in fine form, she was a dynamo on stage, dancing and singing with such power and prowess that when she made clear nods to James Brown and Michael Jackson in her performance, it came across less like a salute than accepting a torch being passed across generations. And it wasn’t just the big production numbers like the rocking “Cold War” or unbelievably catchy “Tightrope” – one of the highlights came early on with a slow and soulful cover of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”. I couldn’t tell from the sidelines how the bulk of the crowd was responding to her set; they clapped along when she did, but the horizon of heads seemed disappointingly level throughout, certainly not dancing or losing their shit as they should have. But it certainly wasn’t for lack of effort on Monáe’s part and for a while, it looked as though this night might go down in the books as the show where Arcade Fire closed for Janelle Monáe.

Of course, those sentiments only lasted until Arcade Fire took the stage shortly after sunset and the throngs and throngs of assembled fans let out a roar you could surely back on the mainland. It clearly wouldn’t have mattered who opened up the show – this was Arcade Fire’s show, this was their crowd and this was their moment. Now I don’t know why i feel the need to stress that I’m not a zealot for the band any time I review something Arcade Fire-related, but I do. Perhaps to try and stress that I’m still being objective when I talk about them, particularly in the live context, even though the language might imply otherwise. Because like it or not, they’re a band that demands hyperbole. They offer blood and grandeur and to not respond in kind is to not fulfill your half of the artist-performer compact, and Saturday night was splendid example of that relationship at work.

I’ve seen Arcade Fire a number of times over the years and it has never failed to amaze me how strongly their fans respond; it seems disproportionate to the actual music itself, which on paper or even on record shouldn’t be so startlingly powerful. It’s a phenomenon that others have noticed – I’ve read more than a couple of pieces pondering exactly why it is the people love this band so, and while most have been tongue in cheek along the lines of “they’re nice people!”, my explanation invokes the aforementioned excuse to speak in overly flowery terms.

They somehow manage to evoke that singular moment in everyone’s life where youth gives way to adulthood, where one becomes acutely aware of the fact that they are not in fact invincible, that they will someday die, but also the sense of still having their entire lives ahead of them and the sense of opportunity that offers – that mixture of anxiety and optimism, insecurity and confidence. It’s a powerful, primal resonance made even moreso when rendered in broad, bold musical strokes. With Funeral, it was conveyed through the lens of family and neighbourhoods, of being part of a special gang. Neon Bible turned it around to be them against the world with no sense that they’d actually triumph. And The Suburbs realizes that there’s no us and them, there’s just everyone. It’s a record that backs away from the grand gestures of the first two records in favour of a more evened-out experience with lulls to compliment the high points and dabbling in new sounds and styles – it’s worth noting that “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” seems to be most everyone’s favourite song and yet it’s New Wave/synth-pop bounce is as far from archetypal Arcade Fire as you can get.

What does this have to do, exactly, with Saturday’s show? Nothing and everything. It’s what coalesced in my head as I watched the thousands of people assembled in a field commune with the eight on stage and tried to articulate what was happening and why. The set itself was fairly close in selection and structure to the Danforth show, particularly around the open and close, but scaled up to suit the larger setting. And if there’s anything Arcade Fire does well, it’s go big. What differentiated this show from ones past, however, was whereas they used to feel primarily about catharsis and intensity, the prevailing emotions being conveyed by Arcade Fire circa 2010 were exuberance and even joy. It can be a subtle distinction when you’re talking about singing at the top of your lungs whilst banging on guitars and drums, but it felt like an important one. Their main set closed, as ever, with the killer combo of “Neighbourhood #3” and “Rebellion (Lies)”, the latter of which left the audience singing the choral backing vocals by way of calling for the encore, and then “Keep The Car Running” and “Wake Up” as the finishing move and the cap to what was pretty much a perfect show, from start to finish.

Pretty much every outlet in the city was on hand to form an opinion on the show – check them out at The Toronto Sun, Toronto Star, National Post, eye, Exclaim, BlogTO and Chart while The Globe & Mail previewed the show with a list of why people love the band. CBC chimes in with an interview. The San Francisco Examiner interviews Janelle Monáe and The Best Drummer In The World profiles Mike Belitsky of The Sadies.

Photos: Arcade Fire, Janelle Monáe, The Sadies @ Olympic Island – August 14, 2010
MP3: Arcade Fire – “Keep The Car Running”
MP3: Arcade Fire – “Black Mirror”
MP3: Arcade Fire – “No Cars Go”
MP3: Arcade Fire – “Wake Up”
MP3: The Sadies – “Another Year Again”
MP3: The Sadies – “Anna Leigh”
Video: Arcade Fire – “Neon Bible”
Video: Arcade Fire – “Black Mirror”
Video: Arcade Fire – “Neighbourhood #2 (Laika)”
Video: Arcade Fire – “Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)”
Video: Arcade Fire – “Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)”
Video: Arcade Fire – “Rebellion (Lies)”
Video: Janelle Monáe – “Cold War”
Video: Janelle Monáe – “Tightrope”
Video: Janelle Monáe – “Many Moons”
Video: The Sadies – “Cut Corners”
Video: The Sadies – “Postcards”
Video: The Sadies – “The Horseshoe”
Video: The Sadies – “Flash”
MySpace: Arcade Fire
MySpace: Janelle Monáe
MySpace: The Sadies

By : Frank Yang at 8:25 am
Category: Concert Reviews

Tags: , ,

RSS Feed for this post5 Responses.
  1. Jenny D. says:

    In the spirt of a kind of justified hyperbole, this is hands down the most perfect review of an Arcade Fire show I’ve ever read. Captures all the important elements of it just perfectly.

  2. danieljosef says:

    Great review Frank.

  3. Bob says:

    Excellent show review (wish I was there) and a very balanced and articulate commentary on the Arcade Fire’s music as well. I have to say that the reportedly lukewarm AF fan response for Janelle Monae’s apparently stellar set worries me a bit. Hopefully some of those Arcade Fire fans don’t become what Hip fans became in the mid 90’s (i.e. intolerant of acts that aren’t the Hip). Just a pointless observation based on second hand reports from someone who wasn’t there.

  4. Concert Review: Arcade Fire, August 14, Toronto Island | The Panic Manual says:

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