Sunday, April 13, 2014

Arcade Fire / Kid Koala / Lost Bayou Ramblers - Live 2013.04.10 Austin360 Amphitheater, Austin, Texas

Despite being fond of Arcade Fire since the beginning, I never truly got into them until the last six months ago or so, when my spouse started playing their albums around me. When we heard they were coming to town, it wasn't hard to be convinced to go.

Artist: Arcade Fire
Venue: Austin360 Amphitheater
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 10 April 2014
Opening Acts: Lost Bayou Ramblers, Kid Koala

Setlist (see here for a slightly different tabulation):
01. Normal Person
02. Rebellion (Lies)
03. Reflektor
04. Flashbulb Eyes
05. Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
06. The Suburbs →
07. The Suburbs (Continued)
08. Ready to Start
09. Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
10. No Cars Go
11. We Exist
12. My Body Is a Cage (tease) → Afterlife → Temptation (New Order cover tease) →
13. It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus)
14. Heart of Glass (Blondie cover) →
15. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

16. Controversy (Prince cover)
17. Here Comes the Night Time
18. Wake Up

I can't review this concert without explaining the venue. The Austin360 Amphitheater is a new addition to Austin, just about a year old. It is part of a larger complex: the Circuit of the Americas, a motor racing circuit that opened in 2012. It is located on the edge of town, past the airport, apparently just outside city limits (as far as I can tell). It is difficult to get to by car and essentially impossible to reach by any other means. Once you arrive, it costs about $20 to park in a massive unstriped lot located approximately a mile from the seats. Tickets can be purchased in advance online, supposedly for $12, but because it's through Ticketmaster, it ends up being about $17.50. (What a deal!) Naturally, this is after the cost of tickets, which were nominally $46 for a decent seat, but again, because it is through Ticketmaster, there are about $11 in additional fees (per ticket). Lawn seats were slightly cheaper, but better seats ran the gamut up to $200.

I think the preface is necessary to understand the general mood as we approached the venue. There was still some fun to be had, because the band (apparently controversially) asked fans to dress up, and most did. However, I had made a key mistake in planning by not correctly predicting the set times of the opening bands. Since Kid Koala had gotten the lowest billing, I assumed he would go on stage first, followed by Lost Bayou Ramblers. Kid Koala didn't interest me, but Lost Bayou Ramblers did, so naturally I wasn't upset that being delayed by the atrocious commute and parking situation meant we missed whoever went on stage first. Or at least, I wasn't upset until we neared the actual venue and heard Lost Bayou Ramblers leaving the stage, followed by Kid Koala beginning a DJ set. It turns out he was set up on a second stage in the crowd, and so he filled the void between the bands. It wasn't a bad idea, but the nonstandard arrangement led to my disappointment in missing a band that I wanted to see and catching another that I didn't.

I think I would have liked Lost Bayou Ramblers if I'd seen them. I think I would have liked Kid Koala if I hadn't seen him. He didn't do much for me except fill some space; I didn't find much merit in his particular style, and I really didn't appreciate his offhand remark about strippers.

But anyway, eventually there was some movement on the main stage. A person came out on with a rather unique headpiece consisting of a four-sided television screen broadcasting Rick Perry's face. He addressed us and then introduced another person with a giant Barack Obama bobblehead. Somewhere in this process, masked bandmembers came out on stage to the tune of "Deep in the Heart of Texas". Eerily, a large section of the audience sang along, and even clapped in time at appropriate points. (Texas is strange sometimes.)

Finally, the masks came off and Arcade Fire kicked into "Normal Person", a hilarious and biting song from their new album, Reflektor. Whereas the prominent lead guitar on the album is almost exaggeratedly loose, live it was stronger and tighter. "Rebellion" also exhibited a little more strength on stage, where almost the entire band shouted the "lies, lies!" backing vocals instead of just Régine Chassagne, as on the record. This began a pattern of alternating among highlights from each of their three biggest albums. (Neon Bible was represented merely by "No Cars Go", coincidentally also found on their debut EP, and a tease of "My Body Is a Cage").

I tried to make sense out of who all was on stage and what everyone was doing. This was a challenging task. The band nominally consists of six members, with two additional regular contributors who seem to come an go as "official" members (Sarah Neufeld and Owen Pallett). They were augmented on stage by four additional musicians: two percussionists and two horns players. While Sarah and Owen mostly stuck to their violins, the core members drifted between instruments throughout the show. Even Jeremy Gara, the primary drummer, switched to guitar for some songs. Régine and Richard Reed Parry, the most notable multi-instrumentalists, both sat in on drums on occasion (usually on a seemingly redundant second set) when they weren't switching between keyboards, celesta, vocals, vibraphones, guitar, bass, and steel drums. It was quite fun to see who played what parts, and impressive to behold the quality of the musicianship.

Other highlights were the heavy dub beat and bass of "Flashbulb Eyes" and a rousing rendition of the band's first single, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)", the only song on which Régine drummed alone. "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" was also a strong performance, but I was surprised to see that one of the dominant instrumental melodies was actually a bass solo!

Win Butler introduced "We Exist" with a clear statement that the song was intended as a demand for acceptance and respect for gays. "Afterlife" was an odd performance; it was preceded by a brief, minimalist version of "My Body Is a Cage", and near the end of the song, Win sneaked in a few lines from New Order's "Temptation" ("Thoughts from above hit the people down below / People in this world, we have no place to go"). The weirdest part was the presence of a strange, shiny, reflective figure that arose from a third stage in the middle of the crowd.

This was immediately followed by "It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus)", in which Régine went to the third stage and sang her parts from there. I suppose this was done in some sort of spirit of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but it was a little strange, since she was rather hard to see, and the people in the lawn were probably totally of out luck on that one. After that, Régine reappeared on stage, ready to sing another part as the band began to play what sounded like "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)". However, the band subtly switched gears and they did a full-blown, awesome cover of "Heart of Glass", before jumping right back into "Sprawl II" and doing the song it's fair justice.

The encore was another strange affair, started off by Win coming on stage with a giant Pope Francis bobblehead. He was accompanied by what I presume was a recording of the pope speaking in Latin. Eventually the rest of the band joined him for a version of Prince's "Controversy", which naturally includes a rendition of the Lord's Prayer. This led into a great take on "Here Comes the Night Time", complete with confetti cannons. The final song was their standard closer, "Wake Up", but at its conclusion, the band marched through crowd and kept playing on any instruments they could carry.

I found the performance to be quite strong and the setlist to be excellent. The sound was good, but not quite up to the standard of other Austin venues. (The fact that it was very windy probably didn't help.) The biggest downside of the whole thing was certainly the venue. I suspect that the band didn't quite know what they were getting into by playing there, and they apologized several times during the show for the trek we had to make to get there. While they were quite thankful that we put up with it, they seemed a little disengaged at times as a result. The show was great, but I think they asked for a lot from their audience, and it made them uncomfortable as a result. Hopefully they learned a lesson and won't return there.

Kid Koala: D
Arcade Fire: B+

P.S.: Since I didn't actually see Lost Bayou Ramblers, I can't really give them a score.

P.P.S. Thanks to Alyssa for countless reasons!

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