May 5th, 2011

Loopster Live: Arcade Fire at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion

[Editor's Note: Due to budgetary restraints and lack of approval from the venue, we have some blurry cell phone shots from Sarah to accompany this article. Alexander was going to create a diorama out of puppets and cardboard instruments, but we thought this the best way to go.]

From the first snare beats of “Ready to Start”, Arcade Fire commanded The Woodlands Pavilion last night. A platform with two drum kits, keyboards, and assorted percussion provided the immediate backdrop, as two lines of fusiliers set to demonstrate that indie can be compelling and inspiring. With the lawn section closed, The Pavilion felt like a neighborhood club with the energy to fill a stadium. It was a potent mix that epitomized the evenings that allow you to treasure Houston and bask in the afterglow of a live performance filled with expectations well met.

Austin’s Explosions in the Sky opened the night with a sonic sorbet: an entrancing set that deserves further discussion, but ultimately seemed to serve as a tension-builder for the headliner. The lush instrumentals added to the made-to-order weather — lulling and enticing you to sneak up to the lawn. This seemed a rope-a-dope strategy, and it worked well to Arcade Fire’s advantage.

For all that, the elephant in the room is that it was somewhat of an awkward homecoming. Then, what homecoming isn’t? (I imagine the former jocks content to relive their glory days are a lot easier to contend with when you have a Grammy and Juno Award under your arm.) Win Butler reportedly declared Houston “boring” earlier in the week, more easily forgiven if not uttered in Dallas. The fact that The Woodlands were the setting for much of the teenage angst and desperate longing for escape was made evermore clear by Win’s expressing of his memory of working at the Pavilion as a “lowly ticket taker.” Yet this crowd empathized with Win and had already made their connection, the question was would Win forgive his crucible.


Before launching into Neon Bible’s “Keep the Car Running”, Win promised the band would play its ass off if met halfway, a promise that foreshadowed the crowd’s desire to do more than its part. As Arcade Fire performed “City with No Children” the crowd erupted at the chance to cheer the mention of Houston without feeling that the touring act du jour was merely placating. The irony that so much of the sourced hurt and disconnect in The Suburbs derived from the immediate setting was as jarring as Reagan’s use of Springsteen’s “Born In the USA” as a rallying campaign anthem.

Win Butler made several attempts to literally bridge the gap between band and audience, at 6’4’ easily straddling the pit. However, he seemed not entirely comfortable embodying the movements of a bona fide rock star front man. I’m biased to forgive awkward lankiness, but I’m guessing the challenge is as much emotional as physical. I hope Win embraces the role he’s earned and clearly deserves.

I cannot begin to imagine what it felt like to be living what was undoubtedly a teenage dream -performing at The Pavilions in front of so many friends and family. After Régine Chassagne’s beautiful rendition of “Haiti”, her own crucible, Win appeared to blossom even further in “Intervention” and the performance was at once more relaxed and more festive.

Credit needs to be given to the whole of the band, however. A breathtaking array of talent and energy easily made the evening memorable even without any consideration of The Woodlands backstory. With respect, Will Butler is a mad man. The seemingly unending energy, the exuberant pounding (much more than mere drumming), and a manic twirling while managing to still deftly play the vibraphone… I want to party with you, cowboy.

Musically, Arcade Fire exceeded hopes. Performed live, songs familiar gained energy, symbolism, and emotion. I’m one of those music fans who doesn’t even try to discern lyrics the first several listenings, soaking in the sound before deconstructing messages – deep or non-existent as the case may be. Arcade Fire is a rare band for me in that the lyrics don’t get muddled, and the articulation and expression last night moved a number of band-specific favorites onto my all-time favorite song list. There was an epiphany that the isolation of a youth in suburbs could be overcome and thus treasured as memory.

With one song left in the main set, Win noted that when he worked at The Pavilion, the unwritten CWMP policy was to stop checking tickets later in the evening, an obvious invitation that was met with some hesitation. And while the first wave was easily turned back, a second wave 30 seconds later overwhelmed the mild-mannered ushers leading to the one black mark on the evening. Security did their best to restore order and appease fire marshals, but in doing so apparently became assertive to a level that prompted Twitter to light up with the first negatives of the evening (aside from the standard whiplash comments about beer prices equaling car payments). A brief break before the encore prevented the aisles from being cleared and resulted in an arena official to announce duringWake Up” that the Woodlands appreciated “cooperation in maintaining our safe and clean neighborhood.” That a big brother voiceover intruded into the performance added to the ironies of the evening.

Fortunately, Régine’s voice helped recover what could have been an evening spoiler. The soaring of “Sprawl II” was a wonderful send off. Either encore song could easily grow to be the kind of signature closer that “Biko” has been for Gabriel and “40” was for U2.

At the risk of projecting yet again: I don’t know Win, but I’m willing to wager that last night’s performance was a bit cathartic for him. I hope he will look back at this show and realize he has arrived, without compromising. If you witnessed last night’s performance, I would guess you are already eagerly anticipating Arcade Fire’s next effort and their next visit.

Mixtape Mashup: Beach Boys (experimental) meets The Stooges

Stoney’s take: We clambaked on the ride up and were major bummer about the lawn being closed. The grass looked so pretty and the sky was epic. Show seemed slow, but picked up as my eyes opened. Was cool hanging with all my peeps. Seemed like half of Montrose was at the show.

Set List:
Ready To Start
Keep The Car Running
Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
City With No Children
Sprawl 1 (Flatland)
The Suburbs
Month Of May
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
No Cars Go
We Used To Wait
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
Rebellion (Lies)

Wake Up
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

Staging was tiered, with a stage-wide riser providing visibility and space for two drum kits, piano/keyboards and Will’s assorted percussion.

Softly lit, with pastel tones and occasional use of footlights to achieve a vintage look.

The retro motif was also found in the double screens edged in bare bulbs and angled to evoke a movie theater marquee that displayed static and video elements that were mirrored on smaller screens around the keyboards on the riser. A large screen provided primary visuals with a team of videographers constantly moving across the stage and through the crowd through the use of DSLR’s providing live feed. The video was a mix of new elements and familiar, family movies and iconic film clips, using a fading, blending technique that is quickly becoming too common.

— Alexander


Thomas — Thursday, May 5, 2011 9:09 pm

Good writeup! That “announcement” about keeping the neighborhood safe and clean was actually Win joking around about the Woodlands. I believe it was during the closing beats of Sprawl II, not Wake Up.

Alexander — Thursday, May 5, 2011 9:55 pm

That makes me feel a bit better about security’s response. Thanks for sharing, Thomas.

J.R. Cohen — Tuesday, May 10, 2011 1:38 pm

This would’ve been great to go to.

Nicole Haagenson — Friday, May 27, 2011 10:16 am

Nice write up Alexander! P.S. The side screens were not being used that night to prepare for parrot heads show the night following. Boo hiss to that lack of proper planning on Pavillion folks side. P.S.S. How about that fancy House of Blues tent with yummy food grilling out back?!

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