A Band on Fire

Three years ago, Arcade Fire materialized out of the chilly air of Montreal. They were an oddball crew, including the Butler brothers (front man Win and sideman Will) from Texas via Exeter Academy; Win’s wife, Régine Chassagne, who is from Haiti and somehow makes playing an accordion look graceful; and the gangly redheaded multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry, who resembles Napoleon Dynamite.

The band’s debut album, Funeral, came out in fall 2004, earning the near-perfect score of 9.7 on the music-snob Website Pitchfork. It was a symbiotic event: Pitchfork made Arcade Fire, and Arcade Fire made Pitchfork—criticism fueling commerce! Music geeks saw in Arcade Fire a glimmer of Neutral Milk Hotel, a beloved cult band that featured tubas and flügelhorns. Others heard the giddy pop of Talking Heads. Arcade Fire had magically synthesized anthemic bar-band songs with the highbrow chops of a string quartet.

Funeral has sold more than half a million copies worldwide, a giant figure for an indie band in this age of digital thievery. Their mournful lyrics notwithstanding, the songs melded into the world’s sonic wallpaper; at hockey arenas, you can hear their hit, “Rebellion (Lies),” reverberating through the rafters. Arcade Fire opened for U2, performed with David Bowie and David Byrne, and were proclaimed, by Coldplay’s Chris Martin, “the greatest band in the history of music.”

All along the way, Arcade Fire resisted bigness. They made time to busk in the Union Square subway station. When they returned home to Montreal to work on their new album, they set up in an old church. They stuck with Merge, the small North Carolina label that can’t afford big advances but allows bands to share in the profits of every CD they sell. And when they finished recording their forthcoming album, Neon Bible, they unveiled the songs to the world at the cafeteria of the Ontario school that Parry attended.

To notify the rest of the world, Arcade Fire finally did descend on the big city, delighting fans by choosing to play five nights at the intimate, unpretentious Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square Park. They complicated matters by making a bad estimate of its capacity—seriously underselling the shows and sparking bidding wars for precious tickets—but the bonus, for some lucky fans, was that more tickets were put on sale at the door. The profit motive, you see, is not their forte, and neither, apparently, is the party-all-the-time motive. Photographer Joachim Ladefoged followed them for their entire stay here. The band stayed at a nondescript hotel in the East Thirties and took a lot of naps. Win was so sick rumors were flying that doctors advised him to cancel the shows.

I witnessed only the Friday-night performance, and I went fearing the acoustics; they were so muddy, according to the Times’ Jon Pareles, that he called their decision to play at the church “a mistake.” Win did look a bit pasty, but his voice came through strongly and clearly to where I was standing. The adorable violinist Sarah Neufeld, who proclaims on the band’s Website that she plays “so hard that I think I’m going to barf,” got all bug-eyed and looked like she might. Parry showed expertise on every instrument he touched, looking particularly in love with his silver upright bass. They closed the set by trooping to the very middle of the room and playing one last acoustic number. While bozos whipped out their phones to snap photos, the rest of the crowd gave themselves up to the moment, lustily singing along to “Wake Up” from Funeral. Here was a band humbly declaring itself one with its audience—a fully premeditated act that they’d done before and would do again. But it felt like it came from conviction and made being in a church seem the farthest thing from a mistake.

A Band on Fire