Concert Review Punchup: Arcade Fire And Andrew Bird

On May 20, 2007, Mike saw Andrew Bird perform at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. The night, Aryn saw Arcade Fire the Chicago Theatre in Chicago, IL. The next day, they had this discussion:

Mike: So Aryn I’m going to start this off with a hearty good morning. I’ll preface this by saying I enjoy when people converse in letter form for a column. We used to do this often for our now defunct season one of hello.column, but no reason why not to continue here. In that time I have noticed sites like the AV Club and Slate have devoted much space to this format of discourse and I have to say when things are rolling, it can be quite a natural discussion like two people sitting at a bar talking music.

Anyway, we both went to pretty great concerts last night from what I gathered by our frantic texting before and after the show. You obviously saw Arcade Fire on their big Neon Bible tour, and I got to see Andrew Bird finally in a full show. Before we dig in to what will eventually devolve into a ‘good music vs. bad music,’ or worse ’stupid fans suck’ rant I think we should talk a bit about the pluses for awhile.

I should say, I have never seen Arcade Fire and you have twice now? And I also am now seeing Bird for the first time in a full show (I did get to peak through the glass of NPR’s studio 4A way back in November of 2005 when he played and chatted on Talk of the Nation), so I might be talking out of fresh ears. But I’m not sure that matters so much here. We’ve been to hundreds of concerts at this point so I think we can fairly assess what we saw.

So, what are some things about Arcade Fire you saw that were different than the first time you saw them at that tiny bar in Lawrence way back on 2004? I imagine a band with that much touring and experience now under their belt, the craft was tighter and more of a spectacle. I have really noticed from the live shows and performances I have heard (on NPR) and on youTube that they are playing their asses off, but also have those delicate and original moments that make it special. Thoughts?

Aryn: YES. This show was great. Two weeks ago I wouldn’t have guessed that I would have been 10 ft from the stage at the Chicago Theatre seeing the Arcade Fire live. I had long given up on the fact that I wouldn’t be able to get tickets in the 2 second T-master window that exists for getting into these types of shows. But low and behold fate came my way as a friend of mine sent me an email asking if I was interested in seeing them for free…. yes free.

In exchange for doing a little light volunteer work for Oxfam, I was given entry into the last night of a sold out three night run. All I had to do was help pass out information about helping to reform the farm bill which is up for review this fall. Basic outline : Farm bill created during the depression era to help out farmers with subsidies, providing a bottom price that a few commodities would be purchased at no matter what. So farmers focused on those few crops, and as the years have passed have been consolidating into bigger and bigger corporations. So now we have more farm area, but fewer actual independent farmers working that land, so these subsidies are going to a smaller percentage of people. So the problem comes in that these subsidies encourage over production, since they are guaranteed a bottom line price, and then dump off the extra food that is not needed here in the states over seas to other countries depressing their local farm productions. So basically they want these subsidies to be re-distributed into conservation, and education programs to benefit more than just a few huge farming corporations.

So basically I helped out with that , missed the opener, and when AF came on I walked right up to like the 8th row and stood in the aisle for the show. I am guessing the people around me paid a LOT more than free for their seats…

Mike: You bring up a good topic here. The two second window for buying tickets before they disappear. Part of me thinks its great that these bands are selling out shows since a few years back the only artists that did that were Elton and Xtina. But the other part of me gets a little hacked off that as soon as its on sale its sold out and usually to the shady internet sellers and scalpers. This topic has been talked about to death, but its not just the scalpers in the traditional sense of bootleg sites and guys outside of the venue, but people like us who simply buy a bunch of tix and sell on Craigslist for way over market value.

What’s annoying is the fact that even if you HAVE the money to buy tix, you get shut out. I had the same thing happen when I saw Arcade Fire was coming here a few weeks back…sold out in a few minutes and then I decided that would be my weekend to go to Chicago. Of course, THEN I was offered two free tix to the show, which I had to then give away. So it goes.

Similarly, I bought a ticket WAY early for Andrew Bird, but then it sold out before any of my concert going friends could get one, hence going alone. I have a mixed feeling about going to shows by myself. Sometimes I like it just going for the sake of going, and not feeling pressure of “do they like it?” with the people your with. Or even trying to decide where to stand its nice to share with someone. But then I miss that pre-show chatter and anticipation, of sharing it with a friend and almost as a way of knowing that you actually experienced it.

And god, when you’re alone, its really amazing to overhear snippets of people’s conversations. You cant help it when surrounded by all those people, but jeez, sometimes I sigh to myself when I hear people talk about music and albums and stuff. Its so hypocritical because I am one of them, and perhaps due to my obsessive passion for music and talking about music do I really just see myself in these music snobs. Now I know what we sound like to outsiders when it just sounds incredibly normal to us. No wonder.

Aryn: So annoying on the ticket end.. but maybe we should save that discussion (which I think we have already posted on our column) for another time… As for the music!

So as you mentioned before, I saw the Arcade Fire back in fall 2004 shortly after (or right before?) their first album exploded and catapulted them into indie-darling rock stardom. It was a tiny place in Lawrence, KS that we packed into, and I stood about 6ft from the stage pushed up against a wall right next to the action. Butler and company were even using the men’s restroom to warm up in, as this place may not have even had a green room for them to use. Anyway I was close enough to exchange small talk with the violin girl before the show. My impression then was that this was a great band working their asses off and playing some great music. Now in comparison to what I saw last night, was amazing. I could still see that great band (lacking the pretension that a lot of those indie bands have) but this time they had a flame thrower where as before they only had a matchstick. The stage was setup with 4 working (one was broken) circular screens about 2-3ft in diameter with projectors behind each one.. The stage is completely black except for projections of the neon bible on each screen , and 5 or six neon red poles jutting up from the front of the stage.

Throughout the show they would change what was being projected on those screens, from strange shots of old-timey faces, to live feeds of them playing through a filter of some sort, but they always returned to that neon bible picture to keep things tied together. OH they also had the huge pipes for an organ suspended from the ceiling on the back left side of the stage. All in all it was a great backdrop to the fantastic music they played.

The songs from Neon Bible fit perfectly among some of the older Funeral ones, still capturing that hard working sound that they pull off so well.

Mike: It’s funny you mention ‘hard working’ because I feel that while MOST bands are hard working, groups like Arcade Fire haven’t shed that sense of approachability that many seem to lose. I guess when you get so huge, its easy to shut yourself off, but they seem connected still…at least a little bit which perhaps endears themselves to fans.

Andrew Bird has that same appeal in part because while a phenomenal player and lyricist and singer, he comes across as being one of us (the audience). Never underestimate the occasional witty banter (not all bands\artists do it right), and even the occasional musical miscue. Near the end of the show, Bird had to restart “Skin Is, My” at least five times.. and for a less endearing musician that would be both professionally disastrous and annoying, but here people just cheered him on until he got the tuning and timing right.

One thing that stood out to me with Bird was not just the looping (I’ve seen that for years) but the level of depth and speed to which he layered his sound. It seemed he not only needed one pass to set the right melody, but also all the other counter lines. It was interesting to hear him set up these loops at the beginning then hear how they fit into context in the actual song… Take a listen to how he sets up the strings at the beginning of “Fiery Crash” during the intro, only to hear them all come back during the bridge of the song later. It changes the whole flavor of the string passages from being individual looped melodies at the beginning to the underlying harmony later on.

His speed and almost ADD-quality to his playing was another thing where he’d play a line on the guitar, bang out a few notes on the glockenspiel then guitar again, without even putting down the mallet. Or switching from guitar to violin so seamlessly. His whistling is something to note as well; he has this uncanny ability to whistle with such subtle vibrato in that old-time style heard in classic cartoons of the 30s, but project it and manipulate it to such a degree and range that it sounds like a theremin. Its one thing to hear it, but pretty great to see how his mind works.

Dosh was the same way on drums and keys…pretty phenomenal where the looping isn’t even a gimmick anymore (to most artists it still remains to be) but just a tool to serve the music. Also impressed with the sturdy hard working nature of the bassist and occasional guitarist. He added much to his bass lines, not just holding the bottom but as counter melodic lines much in a classical way. Reminded me of a jazz bass player or even Paul McCartney, not in genre or style but in the approach to adding melodic content to the bass but without devolving into obtrusiveness.

Didn’t know you chit chat with Regina from Arcade Fire back then… thats pretty great story. Do you find that the videos or slides and such add to the music and the show experience or just something to focus your eyes on?

Aryn: Actually not Regina, the violin player Sarah Neufeld (sp?), also Ross and I chatted with the drummer outside the venue after the show.

As for the Bird loops, I LOVE the way he pulls that off live, how the intro loops he sets up become the bridge harmonies, and how he can start one and the second time around harmonize with it on the fly. Truly amazing, its really great how he has harnessed the technology to serve the music, and not vice versa, to the point that his music doesn’t sound loop based at all. Goes to show how far musicianship can still go in the techno based world we live in.

I think that those bigger venues almost need that visual addition to the music. I didn’t find it to be distracting in the slightest, the visual projections, the color bars on the front of the stage really added to the overall atmosphere and sound of the music enhancing and making the huge venue feel smaller and more intimate. ( granted I was really close to the stage ) One thing that was kind of neat was during the song “My Body is a Cage” they brought out a cardboard cutout of a man in a track suit with a blank face w/ hair to the middle of the stage, and using a projector showed Win Butlers live face on the cutout as he sang from behind on the organ. Really removing himself from the perceived singer of the song. Later he joked about how handsome that guy was that sang that song, and commented on how much more narcissistic could he get..

But they really had a great mix of technology and real awesomeness that worked well together.. The show wasn’t burdened by the visuals in the slightest. I am listening to the’s recording of the Bird show now, basking in the sonic blanket that starts the show…

How did you feel about seeing Bird in a large venue? I know that I was annoyed with the crowd the second time I saw him, as they just talked the whole damn time and felt like it was too big of a place for him (The Riviera Theatre in Chicago). The first show I saw him at was leaps and bounds better as it was in the smallish old school ballroom that is the Logan Square Theatre ( also in Chicago for those readers not familiar with our venues).

Mike: I think the visual elements can help, but I don’t like when they’re too much to the point of being distracted. I like the stage set up to be clean and simple maybe with a few elements to draw your eyes to you. Peter Bjorn & John a few weeks back had a huge black draped backdrop that said creatively enough in all white letters “Peter Bjorn & John Backdrop.” The bass amp and guitar amp and bass drum equally had the same white text that declared their purpose and functionality. Simple but was nice. Bird’s whirling gramophone horn speakers were great visual that actually affected the sound when triggered creating a sound warping pan similar to a giant Leslie that added an extra ambiance of echo to the ends of the songs. Made them sound like the peak noise clutter at the end of the Beatles “A Day in the Life.” But just like the technology in music, the visuals cannot be over the top or pointless and just for the sake of having. But that goes without saying.

Since I often frequent the 930 Club so much, I am used to a bit larger of shows to see artists. I don’t know how large it is compared to Riveria, that place sounds much larger and closer to DC’s DAR Constitution Hall or KC’s Midland Theatre or at least KC’s Uptown Theatre. But as long as I can find a good spot, it can be quite comfortable like seeing a show at Liberty Hall in Lawrence. I would imagine Bird can be great in a small venue with more intimacy but I wonder about the occasional epic level of the show I saw. Its just a different beast. Our long story about punking out from seeing Bird and Sam Prekop comes to mind again because I think that is the same venue that you saw him the first time and I wonder how the show would have been different when he was touring a bit smaller in scale and without the newest record under his belt. He seems to be a guy who would fit no matter what the setting.

As for your not so great experience recently in Chicago, I think it can be attributed to 1) larger audience and popularity because of new album 2) subsequent bigger venue 3) further away from stage therefore disconnected 4) having seen him once, perhaps you were either expecting similar greatness or weren’t quite as blown away a second time around. The hype can certainly ruin a show for me even when its solid…as can location of where you’re situated. My bad Wilco experience I completely blame on over crowded venue, bad location in the club and overall disconnectedness coupled with my own expectations. But when I listened to the same show on NPR later, it sounded great. Go figure.

Are there other similar artists you can think of where you’ve either built up too much to disappointment, or the opposite where you didn’t know what to expect and were blown away because of that? Did you enjoy Arcade Fire last night knowing it was going to be great based on your love of band and having seen them live? Or were you apprehensive thinking it could never live up to the intimacy of the previous? Since you both go to considerably less shows than I do these days and also usually with someone else, what did you think about going alone?

Aryn: There really are a lot of factors that can go into enjoyment of something. I really think that who you go with can affect your perception of a show/movie/play/whatever. Either in a positive or negative way… but nothing comes to mind of hand of a show where I was overly excited for a show and extremely disappointed upon seeing it. But I think expectation can play into it to a point. One example would be DeVotchka that we went to see 7 months ago or so.. I had only heard one of their albums ( and Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack which is all from that one album) and REALLY liked their songs, and with high expectations for the show they lived up to and surpassed the hype. Really pushing them even more into my yes list.

I do feel that my perception of the general concert experience has been going downhill as of late with the advent of talking through the whole show and yelling stupid crap at the band. This is really nothing new, I think I just didn’t notice it as much in the past, but more and more I get frustrated having to listen to the stupid comments made by the drunk hipsters (hipster just being a more sharply dressed hippie) that invariable are standing right next to me. I just don’t understand how people can pay so much for a show and then just talk through the whole damn thing, but I guess different people expect different experiences when seeing live performances. It just makes me appreciate it when I am part of a really great audience that has its attention focused on the band, who in turn (if they are good) can emanate that energy back at us.

Anyway, for every bad show that I go to I think I get 5 good ones, and The Arcade Fire do not put on a bad show… Even through all their hype them being a great band, that focuses on high quality musicianship and plays their asses off can overcome that few annoyances that a crowd can bring, and really create that fantastic musical event that I look for when going out to a live concert.

Mike: I think everyone is looking for their optimal concert going experience, but its unfortunate sometimes when other’s ideas of good concert is talking and distracting. But that lack of concert etiquette is a talk for a different day. Anyway I think we can agree that last night in two separate cities, there were two amazing groups of musicians performing at the top of their game. And really thats all you can ask for on any given night. Well I await, our next concert going experience to talk more of the experience, the bands and so on. Have a good afternoon.

Aryn: Tambien, until the next musical adventure.