July 23, 2016


Panorama Festival: For Arcade Fire's Return to America, The Music Doesn’t Change, But You Do

Mireya Acierto/FilmMagic
Mireya Acierto/FilmMagic

On Friday, New York City’s first-ever Panorama festival played host to Arcade Fire’s first U.S. show in two years. It was my second time seeing them live, the first being in Columbus, Ohio in April 2014 to promote their fourth studio album, Reflektor. I had a lukewarm reception to the album, which echoed themes of disconnection, dissonance and dissolution. It also had a funkier, more shimmery, electronic feel which was, on the surface, why I snubbed it. The real reason probably had far more to do with the fact that the album’s narratives—of fake friends, diminishing romantic relationships, and technological codependence—matched my own life too closely as a senior in college, and I wasn’t ready to face it head-on quite yet. But getting a chance to see them live was still precious to me.

I was 16 when a boy I liked introduced “No Cars Go” to me and I bluntly told him, “This is weird.” But, when you like boys in high school, you like their music taste too, and that eventually made me into a super-fan. “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” probably has more listens than any other songs in my iTunes library, since I wasn’t able to fall asleep without listening to it before bed every night. I was sure my first tattoo would be its lyrics. (It wasn’t.) I wanted to go to Coachella in high school more than anything just to see the multi-instrumental Canadian band work their magic. But I wasn’t able to see the band until almost eight years later, and by then I was too cool to admit my deep fandom.

Arcade Fire hasn’t put out any new music since Reflektor, and the headlining set at Panorama will be one of very few festival sets they put on for the rest of the year. They didn’t play any new music, either; dressed in a sharp crème suit embellished with safety pins, leading man Win Butler launched straight into the blossoming chords of “Keep the Car Running” from 2007’s Neon Bible. The crowd, which was packed and full of all ages, was mellow and happy to be there; ditto for me.

Arcade Fire’s central characters, Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, are like the indie-folk White Stripes; married, but with one small child. They’re private, and rarely affectionate in public, but the real intimacy shows through in their music. Chassagne wore a silver tinfoil-like dress with matching tinfoil fingerless gloves, as if waiting to be transported to space once the show was over. When she took center stage for the song “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” she was full of fresh energy and life. The song, off 2010’s The Suburbs, is about the aching of wanting to escape where you grew up; those empty playgrounds and ticky-tacky houses. It echoes the album’s larger theme of capturing the suburbs in all their toxic, nostalgic goodness. It’s something almost anyone can relate; when the band launches into the song “The Suburbs,” a girl behind me proudly proclaims, “Mom! My tattoo is this song!”

To see Win and Régine croon about these same themes of bitterness and growing older, it made me reevaluate my own feelings about the band. My experience seeing them now was entirely different, but mostly because I was different. I wasn’t trying to reconcile with what my future would look like, where I would live, and what their music meant to me. The things Arcade Fire write about never escape you; they only change with time. To hear Win sing “Our love is plastic, we break it to bits” on Reflektor will be a different experience for me every time I hear it. And for the band, this concert was just as emotionally jarring; near the end of the song, a slideshow of iconic David Bowie pictures starts to scroll through. They transition seamlessly to the track “Afterlife,” probably not by mistake. Win later took a second to speak on how much Bowie absence has affected him: “We miss you so much David. It hurts every day you’re not here. Thank you so fucking much for your music.”

It wasn't the only time Win spoke up; he proclaimed before one song, “Donald Trump will never ever be the fucking president of the United States of America.” He also took a second to recognize Régine’s father, a Haitian immigrant who fought in the Vietnam War. “There’s a lot of empty patriotic talk,” he said, “but we have to fucking stick together.”

Before playing “No Cars Go” he joked about how Randall’s Island has been “gentrified” by “tech stuff and internet cafes.” There was bitterness behind the joke; their last time playing that space was in 2007 with LCD Soundsystem, and it was a much different landscape for both of the artists. Physically speaking, however, Randall’s Island is the still the same pretty stretch of grass and dirt.

When they closed out the night with “Wake Up,” probably their most iconic track, I was on a blissful high. I felt so justified in my absolute Arcade Fire fandom, of loving this band that evolves and withstands time. When the confetti came raining down, I realized that the exact same thing happened at that Columbus show—and I kept a piece in my purse for months afterward. I slowly realized that the two shows I had seen were essentially the exact same, down to the outfits, the band members, the setlist and the weird schtick where they wear papier-mâché heads for “Here Comes the Night Time.” I was disheartened, but figured I would brush it off. It didn’t haven to ruin things.

And then I was surprised again. The band slowly walked offstage, one by one, Win brandishing a megaphone and the rest of them going fully acoustic. They proceeded to march through the center of the audience, jamming out and covering Bowie’s “Heroes.” Those of us that stuck around in hopes of an encore got more than we could have asked. The crawling march lasted even longer than I could bear; I had to woefully leave before they slowly made their procession through the entire field in front of the Panorama Stage. But it was a callback to the Arcade Fire of yesteryear, whose distinct “thing” was to come straight into the thick of the audience to perform. It felt really good; this was the experience I always wanted as a predictably angsty teenager. And it’s one I got as a semi-put-together adult. I fell back in love with Arcade Fire Friday night, until I realized that there really wasn’t ever a time when I had fallen out of love—it was right there the whole time, but I could only now see it through.

As we head into Panorama Day 2, listen to Fuse's Back of the Class podcast, joined by Bianca Gracie, preview the festival at the 20:40 mark in the episode below: