Wednesday April 13, 2011
Considering his band hasn't played a Phoenix show in nearly seven years, Arcade Fire singer Win Butler seems to have a pretty good sense of the place.
That connection goes deeper than a few localized references Butler slipped into last night's show at Comerica Theatre in the fashion customary to rock and roll performances. When I say Butler gets Phoenix, I'm not talking about when he changed the lyrics of "City With No Children" from expressing distrust in "a millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount" to a "millionaire selling a condo in Phoenix" -- though that was a nice little touch.
Instead, look at the lyrics to the show's closer, "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," where Butler's wife and bandmate Régine Chassagne sang about the dead shopping malls rising like mountains beyond mountains, the temptation to go off searching for her "kind" in the distant city lights and how she's encouraged to quit the "pretentious" life of an artist and "just punch the clock." I'm sure the band has ended plenty of sets with the song before but, damn, if it doesn't apply to Phoenix better than anything I've heard in a while.
If it sounds like I'm dissing places like Phoenix, I'm not. And neither, I think, are Butler and his bandmates. That's not because the California-born, Houston-raised, Quebec-dwelling frontman claimed an affinity for the Phoenix Suns on stage -- it's because he gets what a suburbanized city like Phoenix is all about, in ways both good and bad.
Too many reviews of the band's Grammy-winning album seemed to conclude that the record was some anti-suburban diatribe. Ramon Ramirez of Washington City Paper, for example, said Butler "hates the 'burbs" and spent as much of his review defending mid-20th-century urban planning trends as analyzing the band's music. To hear people like Ramirez tell it, we'd have no need of urbanist coots like Jon Talton since Arcade Fire is busy taking the piss out minivan-driving middle managers living in the sort of place Hemingway may or may not have described as boasting "broad lawns and narrow minds."
I never heard the record that way. From the album's opener, where Butler pleads his desire to have a daughter while he's "still young," through "City With No Children" where he (I think) damns his adopted urban existence as "a garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside of a private prison," there's tension. In the end, it seems the record is about a deep ambivalence for the sheltered but secure upbringing that one gets in "Texas' Most Celebrated Master-Planned Community," The Woodlands.
That background, and the way Butler seemed to point out the parallels to Phoenix, is what made Wednesday's concert so impressive to me. Not that it wasn't a solid show on a technical level, as well. A Grindhouse-style vintage-look movie trailer set the tone. The eight-piece band sounded exactly as you'd expect from their records -- big, tight, anthemic. Video screens and lights kept things interesting without upstaging the band. There were, of course, a few token attempts to make the crowd feel like they're really part of something, including a bit where multi-instrumentalist William Butler carried his snare drum all around the lower level of the venue.
But the band's ability to project a mix of showmanship and humility while forging a connection to the people they played for is what really stood out. Arcade Fire was really here, and not just because they hopped off a tour bus for a few hours and sang some songs. The band accomplished something every touring act should attempt, and few will every achieve, bringing a show that tells people a story and leaves them with something to think about after they pull into their driveway and discard their crumpled ticket. To do that, you need to known who you're playing for, and I got the sense Butler understood even after several years of art school in Montreal followed by touring the world with the most successful indie band of our era.
Just one example: Win Butler's comments in relation to SB 1070, the dumb immigration law Arizona's legislature passed last year. It's been nearly a year since the law passed and I've heard dozens of on-stage speeches about it, none more effective than Butler's take. He was smooth and non-judgmental while taking the time to remind the audience of the importance of sensible immigration policy.
"I just wanna say that if the U.S. hadn't let Régine's parents come here I never would have met her, so I hope the U.S. continues to let people come here," he said.
Throw out that sort of thing at your parents' dinner party and you'll successfully make your point. It's just the sort of subtle personal appeal nonconfrontational tract-home dwellers really appreciate, and the sort of statement that can actually change hearts and minds. Those few words from Butler are likely to have a much larger impact than a few dozen other indie bands signing a petition pledging to not play here.
Like I said, Win Butler gets Phoenix.
Month of May
City with No Children
No Cars Go
Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
We Used to Wait
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
Keep the Car Running
Ready to Start
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
Mountains Beyond Mountains
*If you find an error in this setlist please let us know -- it may not be perfect.
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Last Night: Arcade Fire at Comerica Theatre
Personal Bias: I'm proud to say I live in Mesa, the nation's largest suburban city or, as I've been known to call it, "The New York City of Suburbs."
The Crowd: The sort of big but slightly pretentious mix you'd expect when a band wins a Grammy.
Random Notebook Dump: Such a strong aesthetic. Sorta look like Sling Blade characters. Def don't look like schmos off the street -- these people are in a band or something.