Gloves off, hearts open and disco balls glittering, Arcade Fire scaled the stage for the first time ever in Tampa, pouncing and flailing and performing with all the passion that’s made them one of the world’s most celebrated rock bands this century.
And at some point they had to look up and see all the empty seats around them and wonder: What happened?
Yeah, Tampa, what happened? Why were so many seats in the USF Sun Dome unfilled Friday night? Here’s a band that’s headlined the world’s biggest festivals, that owns a Grammy for Album of the Year, that just last week filled Madison Square Garden, that’s near the top of the list of countless indie rock nerds’ concert bucket lists – and fewer than 4,000 fans turned out, a little more than a third of the venue’s capacity.
You wonder sometimes why this city can’t have nice things? This is why. But at least the Montreal indie rockers were polite about the disappointing turnout.
“We’ve been waiting to play here for a very long time,” frontman Win Butler told the passionate fans who did show up. “I’m sorry for keeping you waiting, Tampa.”
At least the show was worth the wait. Watching Arcade Fire play for two hours in the round at the Sun Dome was like trying to absorb a discotheque, theme park and factory all at once – performers always moving, pieces always shifting. Identifying each member by instrument feels almost pointless – they all swapped roles on nearly every song, giving each number the feel of a different band.
And they did their best to give everyone a good look. The stage, initially, was set up like a boxing ring in the center of the arena floor – if not a first for a Sun Dome show, certainly a rarity. And while most players stuck to their stations,with microphones set all around the ring, fans who shelled out $75 for floor access got some spectacular looks at the band – including a chance to dance with Butler’s wife and co-bandleader Regine Chassagne, who bopped down to shuffle through the crowd on Reflektor.
The downside to this show, if there was one, was that Tampa was catching Arcade Fire on tour behind its most divisive album, Everything Now, a concept album about cultural overload and media oversaturation whose marketing campaign – fake album reviews and websites, band-branded fidget spinners – ended up overshadowing the actual songs.
But those songs aren’t all that bad – not on the album, and certainly not live, where Arcade Fire have always shone brightest. The funky, snaking Signs of Life and cataclysmic, piercing Creature Comfort shook the arena, and the reprise to Everything Now, delivered near the end, swelled with as much heart as anything from the band’s acclaimed 2004 debut Funeral. Honest to God, there were people on the floor linked arm in arm, swaying in passion to a song from Arcade Fire’s most cynical album.
And if that’s how the new stuff played out, well, you can imagine how fans responded to all the songs they’ve waited years for the band to bring to Tampa. Rebellion (Lies) saw Chassagne and violinist Sarah Neufeld scaling the ropes of their boxing ring, cheerleading the crowd into a tizzy. Another Funeral track, Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels), saw Chassagne take over on drums, building one of the most sweeping crescendos of the night.
While Butler is the band’s primary singer and lyricist, Chassagne is its spirit animal, whether she’s dancing with joy or robotically rocking a keytar. She played the widest variety of instruments – an accordion on Keep the Car Running, a set of spoons rapped against wine and liquor bottles on We Don’t Deserve Love – and burst with joie de vivre while singing lead on Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), as kaleidoscopic colors ricocheted off disco balls around the arena. Chassagne was the spark of light that Butler, a lumbering hulk of a human, never opted to be, and the show lit up the more she had to do.
Long a band of activists, Butler kept his soapboxing to a minimum, speaking only briefly about Florida’s refusal to allow more than 1.6 million convicted felons the right to vote.
“There’s a lot of s--- that’s a felony that you should be able to vote in a f---ing election for,” he said. “It’s a direct result of racism.”
And noting that he and brother and multi-instrumentalist Will Butler are Houston-area natives, he dedicated The Suburbs to “everybody who lost anything in the storm.”
There are surely those who’d have preferred another song or two from Funeral or The Suburbs, although those who favor 2007’s Neon Bible – yours truly included – left more than fulfilled. Not only did the band deliver two of its most adrenalized anthems, Keep the Car Running and No Cars Go, back to back, they also offered tour debuts of the organ-fueled Intervention and, for the first time in more than a year, the lightly bossa nova-sprinkled Ocean of Noise.
At some points it seemed like sensory overload, all the moving and shaking and dancing and lights blaring everywhere – but it was all a good thing, especially as the band built to its epic closer Wake Up. Fans howled those anthemic whoa-oh-ohs to the end, right until the band marched off, playing themselves backstage with a funky, acoustic version of the song.
The chants and the feels bounced around the hearts and minds of everyone well after the song ended. They’ll have to suffice for a while. Given all the empty seats in the stands, you wonder if Arcade Fire will ever be back.
-- Jay Cridlin