A few years ago, my friend played me The National’s “Daughters of the Soho Riots” at a party, causing a few people in attendance to groan and request something “faster.” Granted, it was a party, people were drinking, probably making out in closets, but I would have none of it. I had never heard of The National before that night, and something about “Daughters” was beautiful to my ears, especially the lyric, “You were right about the end, it didn’t make a difference.” The song played until the end.
It seems to me that the term “slow music,” or music that requires a little patience, is being hit with a negative connotation these days. That is, if the pace isn’t immediately favorable to one’s ear, it’s time to listen to something else. Or, if the lyrics just aren’t sensible, like The National’s “Looking For Astronauts” or “Wasp Nest,” some people would prefer not to waste their time. These are the same people who probably turned off Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot when they couldn’t figure out what an “American aquarium drinker” was, as if the term has any kind of definitive meaning. If it means something — anything — to you, that should be good enough, right?
So, watching a band like The National perform takes a little bit of effort. Their one-hour set before Arcade Fire was a slow-building gem, beginning with “Start a War,” and ending with the manic “Terrible Love,” one of my favorite songs off of last year’s High Violet.
Sandwiched in between were selections that allowed lead singer Matt Berninger to eventually build up enough gusto to jump down from the stage during “Mr. November” and attempt to survey every square foot of The Scottrade Center. When he made his way to the empty back corner of the arena floor, an area where hockey players are often bruised and bloodied, he jumped over the wall, and proceed into the stands, screaming the lyric, “I’m Mr. November, I won’t fuck us over.” It was a moment I’ll always vividly remember; I’m just surprised Berninger didn’t climb any walls, or perhaps magically grow wings and start flying around like those bees he sings about in “Bloodbuzz Ohio.”
The National’s set left me thinking that Arcade Fire had a little work to do. And boy, did Arcade Fire do work.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was not already a huge Arcade Fire fan before this show. I thought “We Used To Wait,” “Ready To Start,” “Wake Up,” and “Keep The Car Running” were special songs, but I had yet to connect with their albums in a way where they had remained in my car for weeks upon weeks, tearing apart my soul. Arcade Fire, to me, was just a band that came on my iPod shuffle every now and then, giving me a brief burst of inspiration or spurt of energy. They had yet to offer me something consistently great.
After seeing their 90-minute set, I’m happy to say that I completely get it now: this is a once-in-a-generation rock band. And the best thing about them is that they just don’t give a shit what anyone thinks about them. They just play.
It’s obvious that I simply wasn’t giving their music enough attention, because, during their performance, I heard beautiful anthems about growing up, breaking free, and most importantly, not caring about living a calculated life — that it’s equally fine to not participate as it is to adjust to your environment as you see fit. I believe that is what Win Butler is saying in the songs that he writes: don’t expect everything in life to make perfect sense. Create as you go.
As a live performer, Butler is as unassuming a rock star as they come. In the opening moments of “We Used To Wait,” he appeared bright-eyed, gazing into the crowd, as if he were in a dream. I’m not quite sure if he wanted to be in such a huge arena performing his band’s songs, but as he said mid-way through the set, “a room’s a room,” and he made the most of the opportunity. What followed was a back-to-back-to-back main-set closing dream in itself: “Keep The Car Running,” “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” and “Wake Up,” which had thousands of people singing, “Ahhhhhhh ohhhhh ahhhh ohhhhhh.” Amazing.
And as solid as Régine Chassagne was during “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” the final song of the encore, it all felt like a footnote after “Wake Up.”
The end, as Matt Berninger once told us, “didn’t make a difference.” We were already given more than enough.