- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2007

Drivers looking to cruise 18th Street north from the monuments late Friday night seemed perplexed by the hundreds of sweaty, exhilarated concertgoers who poured out of DAR Constitution Hall and wandered heedlessly into traffic after the close of Arcade Fire’s rapturous 90-minute concert — a 16-song set, including two encores, that had the depth and richness of a symphony and the passion of a religious revival.

The band surrounds what are often fairly unremarkable melodies with hyperkinetic percussion, energetic performances and the charismatic presence of lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Win Butler.

While Mr. Butler is usually lumped in with fellow alternative music demigod David Byrne (an early Arcade Fire champion), his songwriting and performance style remind me more of Bruce Springsteen. Like Mr. Springsteen, Mr. Butler has a knack for building melodic strength and momentum on stage, as he did with the intense “Keep the Car Running,” which balances French horn and guitar, and is sprung into an ecstatic climax by a lonely but thrilling viola line. Like Mr. Springsteen, he pushes his voice past its natural range in order to intensify his emotional commitment to the song and to the moment, as on “Ocean of Noise.”

Arcade Fire does not travel light. The band’s touring company numbers 10 musicians including two horn players and a violist. The stage set included an array of retro-futurist pole-mounted video screens housed in sleek wooden cabinets that displayed live images from the show. But the band provided the real action — swapping instruments and racing around the stage with carnival energy.

Regine Chassagne opened the show grinding a hurdy gurdy and singing, before moving to accordion and then drums. Richard Parry moved from guitar to upright double bass (which he bowed) to keyboards to playing a marching-band drum and tambourine. In the show’s most intense section, Mr. Parry stood center stage, banging his drum one-handed, while lofting the tambourine into the rafters and catching it on the beat.

At times Arcade Fire resembled an improvisational collective, playing with the energy and anarchy of an impromptu drum circle. On certain choruses, all 10 voices join in — including impassioned shouts from violinist Sarah Neufeld and violist Marika Anthony-Shaw, whose unamplified voices carried over the crush of guitars, keyboards and drums. At other moments they seemed as rehearsed as an orchestra, as when the band falls silent save for the sonorous intonations of the two French horns at the close of “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations.”

With a repertoire of recordings just north of 20 tracks, Arcade Fire will run through pretty much its entire catalog in a single show. On Friday they leaned heavily toward the new release “Neon Bible,” playing all but two tracks: “Antichrist Television Blues” and the eerie torch song, “My Body Is a Cage.”

Based solely on their recordings, it is fair to question the legitimacy of the hype surrounding this quirky alternative rock band. On CD, their melodies may seem less than inspirational, and the idiosyncratic arrangements can sound a little precious, but Arcade Fire’s vision comes together in concert in a way that is compelling and undeniable.

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