Lollapalooza: Music Unites Us

As much as I prefer seeing concerts in small clubs, I have to admit there’s something really cool about the communal feeling you get when you’re with thousands and thousands of other people who all like the same musical artist — especially when the musicians are putting on a hell of a show, singing and playing with unbridled passion, and the crowd is responding with thunderous applause. A sea of arms waving to the music. Groups of people dancing. Audience members singing along with the choruses, shouting things like “OH OH OH OH OH OH OH OH OH OH OH OH OH OH OH OH OH OH OH!!!” far louder than they ever sang anything in church or school. If you happen to be stuck in such a scene at a show where you don’t like the music, it can feel rather hellish, as if you’re surrounded by the brainwashed members of a religious cult.

But if your musical tastes are in synch with the throng around you, the feeling can be transcendent. For at least this brief time — at most an hour or two, maybe a few minutes in the middle of a concert — it feels like the world is right. And if you’ve ever felt like a musical snob, hoping that the masses don’t discover those favorite obscure bands you’re hoarding like a secret — if you’ve ever felt like a musical weirdo because the bands you really like rarely play at venues bigger than the Hideout and never get played on the radio — then suddenly this big concert experience makes you feel like some sort of crowd-loving populist. It is possible for big masses of people to like the same music that I do! And it isn’t somehow ruining the music, as I’d feared it would. The world is right. But then, of course, the concert ends. And you start slipping back into the same old attitudes you’d had before. For a moment, it seemed like you were in synch with the rest of humanity. Now… Well, you’re not so sure about that anymore, but at least you know it can happen for a few minutes.

At Lollapalooza this past weekend, that experience came for me during the Sunday-night finale by the Arcade Fire. This was the fifth time I’ve seen the Arcade Fire, and I’m not sure if they’ll ever top the first two amazing shows I saw them do, at the Empty Bottle in 2004 and Lollapalooza 2005. Surely, by now the Arcade Fire must have mellowed a bit.

But damn if they didn’t put on an intense show on Sunday, the very sort of barnstorming set that helped to make them popular in the first place. They were more careful with their antics than five years ago — Will Butler did not jump into the photo pit wielding a microphone stand, as he did at Lollapalooza 2005, coming close to dinging me in the head. (Here’s a video of that moment; I believe I must be just outside the frame.) And as far as I was able to observe, no helmets were required since no one was drumming on anyone else’s head this time.

But the seven musicians in the Arcade Fire are still swapping instruments and working up a sweat as they pound away with their violins, guitars, keyboards and even a hurdy-gurdy.

The songs from the new album The Suburbs sounded strong, but older songs provided the cathartic climax of the concert, as the audience sang along with “Rebellion (Lies)” and “Wake Up.” It was as if the crowd was defying the lyrics Win Butler had sung earlier in the new song, “Month of May” — “Now, some things are pure and some things are right/But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight.” These kids were not just standing there with their arms folded tight.

What followed, as Lollapalooza ended, was a crush of concertgoers trying to reach the exit gates. I got stuck in a seemingly immovable mass of people near one of the beer tents. Everyone remained fairly calm and patient, and I finally broke free of the pack. The crowd streamed out into the streets of downtown Chicago. Walking on Monroe along the Art Institute, I was in the midst of some folks who began clapping spontaneously. And then a bunch of us began singing the wordless chorus from “Wake Up.” It felt like we were trying to stretch out that beautiful concert for a few more minutes. Even half an hour later, riding the el home, I think I heard someone whistling “Wake Up.” And then the spell was broken, and the world was back to normal.


More blog posts coming soon, including: Music Divides Us … And more from Lollapalooza 2010.

Lollapalooza Photos: Arcade Fire

Lollapalooza 2010 is over, ending with a good and proper climax from the Arcade Fire. More photos (and yes, some actual words) coming soon from Lolla. In the meantime, here are my photos of the Arcade Fire show from a couple of hours ago.

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Arcade Fire at the Chicago Theatre

Another old Daily Southtown concert review I’m belatedly posting now. I also saw the Arcade Fire concert two nights later, which was nearly as good.


The 10 musicians in the Arcade Fire made their entrance Friday night at the Chicago Theatre by strolling up the center aisle through the audience.

And then, the group frequently switched on a set of lights that illuminated the audience instead of the band. The message seemed to be that those rock stars up on the stage are just regular people like everyone else in the theater.

But what extraordinary musicians they are. Other bands may be more virtuosic, but few if any can top the Arcade Fire for playing with reckless passion and almost insane energy.

During the touring that followed the Montreal band’s 2004 debut, “Funeral,” the Arcade Fire quickly established a reputation as one of the world’s best live bands. That reputation is still intact after Friday’s riveting performance.

It was the first of three sold-out shows at the Chicago Theatre for the Arcade Fire, a band that played in front of a much tinier crowd at Chicago’s Empty Bottle just three years. Despite the exponential increase in venue size, the band still shows the same anarchic spirit that animated it when it was playing those early shows.

The Arcade Fire’s second album, “Neon Bible,” is a little more stately and subdued than the debut. It’s a very good record, but one had to wonder if the songs would translate into the same live experience as the “Funeral” songs.

The band has been playing the new songs long enough now that it seems to have figured out ways of taking them up a notch in concert. The audience reacted enthusiastically to the “Neon Bible” songs, clapping and swaying to the beat, but the crowd response got even more intense whenever the band played tracks from “Funeral.”

With violins and horns plus an ever-shifting lineup of instruments, including hurdy-gurdy, mandolin and organ, the Arcade Fire sounded at times like an orchestra or a folk string band, often playing with the spirit of a gospel revival show. Lead vocalist Win Butler sang his heart out, while several other members of the band added force to the songs with their huge chorus of harmony vocals.

During a few of the old songs, multi-instrumentalists Will Butler (Win’s brother) and Richard Reed Parry grabbed drumsticks and played percussion on whatever objects were in front of them — including each other. At one point, they threw pieces of a drum kit at each other. They never bothered to put on the helmets that they use to wear for protection during such stunts.

The Arcade Fire closed its second and final encore with Régine Chassagne, Win Butler’s wife and the other lead vocalist, singing “In the Backseat,” the closing track on “Funeral.” Even during this fairly quiet song, the band achieved an epic sound.

Chassagne sang in a tremulous voice, as if the emotions of the lyrics were still fresh in her mind. That’s one thing about the Arcade Fire — when these musicians perform their songs, they always sounds like they mean it.

Black Mirror
Keep the Car Running
(Antichrist Television Blues)
No Cars Go
Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
Neon Bible
The Well and the Lighthouse
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
My Body Is a Cage
Rebellion (Lies)
Ocean of Noise
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
In the backseat

The Arcade Fire at the Empty Bottle

As the Arcade Fire was setting up its equipment on the Empty Bottle’s stage, one had to wonder: Just what are those motorcycle helmets for? Are stunts of some sort going to be performed? Yes, indeed … and protective headgear would be required.

(A brief aside: With seven musiciansthe Arcade Fire had some difficulty squeezing onto the Bottle’s stage. Hey, guys — the Polyphonic Spree has played here. If they can do it, you can.)

The songs on the Arcade Fire’s CD, Funeral, are emotionally intense, but they wouldn’t necessarily lead you to think this would be a particularly wild band on the stage. And it’s not as if everyone in the lineup constantly wreaks havoc, but a few of the musicians do display a manic, almost reckless energy. Like British Sea Power, the Arcade Fire makes use of mobile percussion, as some of the guys march about with a snare drum, shake tambourines or pound drumsticks on any available surface. The Arcade Fire also played musical chairs; almost everyone played more than one instrument during the course of the concert.

This Montréal group’s songs seem to be based around fairly simple chords and melodies, but they are strong melodies, reinforced by lots of backup vocals, violin and accordion. Something about the vibe brought Talking Heads to mind… and then, appropriately enough, the band covered a Heads tune, “This Must be the Place (Naive Melody).” The Arcade Fire also increases tempos and intensity in the final sections of many songs, echoing the fervor of the Feelies.

Main vocalist Win Butler sings in one of those slightly strangled indie-rock yelps, bringing strong feeling to these tunes. Régine Chassagne sings a couple of songs, too, including “Haïti,” which was particularly fun in this concert performanceIt isn’t always easy to make out the words on Funeral without the lyrics sheet to guide you along.

Once you do become familiar with the lyrics, the songs take on even more resonance. Death and neighorhood are the recurring themes. The liner notes explain: “When family members kept dying they realized that they should call their recordFuneral, noting the irony of their first full length recording bearing a name with such closure.”

But what’s really striking about the lyrics is their private nature; they feel like excerpts from a diary — the notes of someone who views the world with both mystical wonder and trepidation. “We’re just a million little gods causin’ rain storms turnin’ every good thing to rust.”

The crowd at the sold-out Empty Bottle knew these songs well and cheered wildly at many points. The music was crashing brilliance.