With a dozen members, centered on married vocalists Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, Arcade Fire musicians are a party unto themselves - a lively dinner, if not a full-blown rager. They wrote songs for arenas long before they ever played them, communal anthems twining intimacy and brute force. Sometimes, everyone played some sort of percussion, as if the listener were invited to gather around an imaginary fire in some primitive cave; at other times, everyone sang, as at the end of Les Miz. They were an independent band, making music on real instruments, but they sounded big, and that made listeners feel big as well.
Although bombast is not normally a quality one seeks out, Arcade Fire's set could have used a little more of it. Some critics have reached into their simile bags and pulled out a handful of U2 or a chunk of Coldplay, but Arcade Fire doesn't have those bands' will to power, or a front man with the same messianic zeal. On stage, Butler came off as a pleasant, gregarious blank - the party's host, but not its life. Near the beginning of the set, hands thrust cellphones out of the crowd at him, and he picked one up and started to call one of the lucky fan's favorites. But what could have been a viral moment fizzled, and he was just a guy on stage awkwardly futzing with an iPhone.
Rock stars are monsters by nature: larger than life, but also less (or at least other than) human. It's what allows them to get away with pronouncements like "We're living in an age which calls darkness light," the kind of glib overstatement that otherwise belongs in the margins of a 16-year-old's textbook or an alien observer's field notes. How else is one to process "Normal Person," which Butler dedicated to "everyone who picked on me in high school," which must also have been when he happened upon the realization that (spoiler!) none of us is normal?
The band's set had its grand gestures, and a few goofy ones as well. During "It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus)," Butler and Chassagne sang to each other from opposite ends of the darkened arena, lending a concrete poignancy to the song's mythological allusions, and the unison vocals of "We Exist" overflowed the banks of its tidy coming-out narrative.
On the goofy side, the encores began with a band of interlopers in oversize plastic heads miming to Chubby Checker's "The Twist," silenced by the real band's credible if not oversoulful take on Boyz II Men's "Motownphilly."
For the most part, Chassagne was the cool vocal foil to Butler's excited yelp, but she took the lead a handful of times, notably on the set-closing "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)." Having spent most of the night parceling out her movements with almost robotic precision, she took this opportunity to cut loose, assuming the lead singer's mantle and toying with it as well. She was comfortable and charismatic, incantatory and ironic, performing private emotions in ways that could be read in the cheap seats. For a few minutes, it felt like Arcade Fire was a great rock band, rather than playing the role of one.