Last year, when Flaming Lips brought their outre show to the Santa Barbara Bowl, it was a strange combo that didn’t work: confetti cannons, amazing light show, gigantic balloons shooting out over the audience on one hand; morose and dark music underneath, the opposite of the fun the party favors promised.
However, that promise was fulfilled last Monday night, when another band of live concert renown, Montreal’s Arcade Fire, made their first Bowl appearance. They too brought confetti cannon and streamers, both a light show of mirrors, disco ball suits, and video projection. But most of all they brought their exciting catalog, from the stirring anthems of 2004’s “Funeral” to their 2013 delve-into-dance-music “Reflektor.” When lead signer Win Butler told us at the beginning to all stand up — “you can sit down at the end of the show” — he was not kidding. The audience followed suit, and the band made sure there was no reason to rest.
Arcade Fire is arguably one of the most important bands in rock right now, changing tack with every album, yet keeping that particular songwriting style intact. They are also one of the biggest bands in rock, currently at 12 touring members. And several of them change up instruments based on the song. For one number, they had two drummers and two percussionists going. Another had two violins. And it all works together, never descending into a wall of sound or a blurry pudding.
The band also had their doppelgangers present, 12 folks who entered with gigantic papier mache heads on, each head a caricature of a band member. All except Win Butler, who came out wearing a gigantic Jerry Brown mask, and the band slipped into a quick cover of the Dead Kennedys’ “California Uber Alles,” written about Gov. Brown the last time he was in office.
And then the band really got into it, starting off with “Here Comes the Nighttime” a pounding mix of disco and Afro-Cuban polyrhythms. On the album this is a steady builder, but live it was a call to arms, all intense and overwhelming. “If you wanna be righteous, get in line,” sings Mr. Butler. On record the line sounds tired and ironic. At the Bowl he was speaking right to us. (It also helped that opening act Dan Deacon, a techno-howler crossed with a stand-up comedian’s gift for gab, had just been ordering the people in the pit to get into a long tunnel-like dance line.)
“Flashbulb Eyes” was a cue for all the silver reflectors to descend from the ceiling, and that led into their album’s title track, “Reflektor,” one of the highlights of the concert, a full eight minutes of the smartest disco-rock track in ages. Then “Joan of Arc” was realized as the Marc Bolanesque glam track it only hints at on the record.
They dipped into their back catalog, polishing “Neon Bible” tracks like “Ocean of Noise” and “No Cars Go” and doing justice to “Funerals” and “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” — with yet another volley of confetti shooting out.)
Co-singer Regine Chassagne took to a satellite stage for “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus),” her movements doubled by a dancer in a skeleton suit right behind her. The main set ended with “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” which in this disco setting revealed itself as the offspring of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.”
Seriously, Internet DJs, mash these two songs together!
The encore was short and sweet, with the papier mache “band” playing Tom Petty’s “California” before getting kicked off and the band laying down “Normal Person” (so much better than the album, where it drags), “Rebellion (Lies),” and the always rousing, heart-tugging “Wake Up” closed the show, the band almost lost behind a final wall of confetti. Unlike many a Bowl concert, the evening whizzed by, and instead of a feeling of exhaustion, what was this? Satiety.