Arcade Fire wasted no time declaring its purpose Saturday at a mostly full United Center. “Gotta get the spirit out of me,” vocalist-guitarist Win Butler repeatedly sang on the opening “Age of Anxiety I.” As if answering in agreement, his wife — multi-instrumentalist/singer Régine Chassagne — echoed the line right back at him.
The release of raw emotion and search for authenticity defined the nearly two-hour show, which never fully transcended an aura of tension caused by allegations leveled at Butler this summer. The performance also showcased Arcade Fire’s attempt to reengage with the sweeping, stadium — ready style that in the mid-2000s helped the band rapidly make the jump from small clubs to larger venues. By happenstance, Chicago played a key role in the group’s rise.
In 2005, before Lollapalooza became a destination festival synonymous with teenage fans, Arcade Fire delivered a triumphant set as upstarts at the resurrected, then-two day event in Grant Park. Staged amid sweltering heat, the concert made national news and triggered a wave of momentum. For the better part of the subsequent decade, the collective stood at the forefront of the indie rock community — respected not only for its music but its inclusive attitude, social consciousness and philanthropy.
Even as the group struggled to find a consistent creative footing on “Reflektor” (2013) and “Everything Now” (2017), its reputation remained intact. More awards and acclaim followed. Yet Arcade Fire’s character recently came into question after multiple people accused Butler of sexual misconduct that allegedly occurred before the pandemic. An investigative report by Pitchfork magazine surfaced in late August, days before the band embarked on its current world tour.
Butler, who admitted to the extramarital relations, maintains the interactions were consensual and He apologized, spoke of a bout with drinking and depression and revealed struggles with mental health issues. Chassagne issued a statement supporting Butler and their partnership.
Nobody in the group addressed the issues on Saturday. Still, it was impossible to ignore the unspoken uneasiness — similar to the vibe you get when confronted with a moral dilemma surrounding something or someone you admire — that hung in the air. Concertgoers in several markets have asked for ticket refunds or called for boycotts. Some suggested the tour be canceled. Indie-rock peers Feist and Beck, originally scheduled to open certain legs of the trek, dropped off the bill.
The circumstances present a challenge to an ensemble whose songs invite participation and whose ethic thrives on collectivity — its latest record is titled “We.” Arcade Fire’s once seemingly unbreakable bond with its followers may be fractured. Fans also faced a dilemma: Is it still OK to celebrate and come together with thousands of strangers and the band as one voice?
Arcade Fire on Saturday did nearly everything in its reach to forge a shared connection and hint that optimism, goodness and understanding are still possible in a polarized era. The band’s interactions — spontaneous, delirious, occasionally disjointed — shied away from the slick moves now commonplace at many arena shows. So did its refreshingly unpredictable set, which varies on a nightly basis and doesn’t need to be tethered to programmed cues or expensive props.
The group was about as in-your-face as a band could be in an arena setting. It approached the occasion like it might a street-corner party. Members took turns on various instruments scattered about the stage. Haitian multi-instrumentalist Paul Beaubrun and Butler often played while standing on monitors. Butler also waded into the crowd on multiple occasions. Not to be outshined, Chassagne exchanged high-fives as she skipped to a second platform where she climbed atop a piano. At once intimate and bigger-than-life, the presentations suited the music.
Tackling a host of big-concept themes, songs fizzed with energy and conviction. The most feverish compositions worked overtime to compel anyone within earshot to submit to their giant hooks and propulsive rhythms. The end goals for nearly every tune: attaining spiritual communality through singalongs and dispensing tender advice that we’re all going through life together.
The catchy “Rebellion (Lies)” came across as the sound of unified community via a nervous-twitch bass line, blown whistle, hand drum and wordless backing refrain. The strum of a 12-string acoustic guitar, a lush melody and a wheezing accordion on “Lightning I” gave way to a double-time signature and garage-rock impulses on the interconnected “Lightning II,” whose adrenaline spike underlined feelings of hope, inspiration and enthusiasm.
Chassagne and company also sang about innocence (“Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”), defiance (“We Exist”) and escape (“No Cars Go”) — with the threats of modern reality and emptiness of consumer culture never far away. “Reflektor” belied its carefree electro-funk symmetry by dealing in dashed dreams and personal detachment; the mechanical synthesizers and shouted pleas on “Creature Comfort” complemented the narrative dread, pain and desperation at hand.
Faced even with the decline of America (“End of the Empire I-III”), however, Arcade Fire found reasons to believe (“End of the Empire IV (Sagittarius A*)”). The band also knew enough to leverage its seriousness and density with well-placed humor. A family of inflatable, smiley-faced tube puppets suddenly appearing during the heartfelt folk of “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)”? Silly, and fun. Satirically condemning instant gratification and excess via sugarcoated, dance-friendly grooves (“Everything Now”)? Go ahead, strike a pose.
“Can we just work it out / Scream and shout ‘til we work it out?” Chassagne and Butler sang together on “Afterlife,” a song whose lyrics resonated with deeper meaning. Let the broader conversation begin.
Bob Gendron is a freelance critic.
Setlist at the United Center in Chicago Nov. 12:
- “Age of Anxiety I”
- “Ready to Start”
- “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”
- “We Exist”
- “Creature Comfort”
- “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)”
- “The Lightning I”
- “The Lightning II”
- “Rebellion (Lies)”
- “No Cars Go”
- “The Suburbs”
- “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)”
- “Unconditional II (Race and Religion)”
- “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
- “Everything Now”
- End of the Empire I-III
- “End of the Empire IV (Sagittarius A*)”
- “1979″ (Smashing Pumpkins cover)
- “Wake Up”