Last year, a friend sent me a video of The Arcade Fire playing at Local 506 in 2004, two months before their full-length Merge debut, Funeral, made them the biggest North American band on an independent label. The friend, an avid Arcade Fire fan, said the video wasn't very good, but that the band on stage that night—what with their developing live show straining the 506's sound system—was worse.
But he knew I would enjoy it. I had been there that July night, three people back from frontman Win Butler, loving it amidst an over-capacity 506 crowd that seemed to be doing the same. I'd feel safe wagering that many in the crowd have told anyone who would listen for the past three years that The Arcade Fire—then, an unknown six piece crowding the 506 stage—was a revelation that night. They were in town to play the pre-party for Merge's four-day 15th anniversary festival, and they ended up stealing the event, becoming the band everyone kept asking about for the rest of the week. They were one of the only bands I'd ever seen walk into a room almost completely unknown and walk out of the same room leaving nearly everyone as breathless converts. You just knew they were going to be huge, and you knew they deserved it, too.
But my friend was right. That video wasn't very good and watching that night's performance captured with handheld video was nothing more than a pleasant reminder of fun I'd already had. The Arcade Fire didn't coalesce on my computer screen as they had that night, sweating out an intense Carolina summer. But I finally understood why I couldn't enjoy that video Wednesday night while watching a post-SNL Arcade Fire turn Asheville's stately Thomas Wolfe Auditorium into a booming rock hall: Even before the hype in the fall of 2004, they were too big for Local 506, or for a video camera trying in vain to capture them onstage or—better still—for a laptop computer trying to remember that night. In front of a capacity crowd of 2,341 Wednesday night, they were still too big for their audience, their stage or their expectations. People, of course, came expecting to see a concert. But what they got was a brilliant, day-glow revival, a screaming, shouting, thrashing reminder of how The Arcade Fire managed to remain on an independent label and hit No. 2 on The Billboard 200 and appear on Saturday Night Live.
"If any people want to come closer, by all fucking means come on down," Win Butler told the big room after opening with a baiting version of "Black Mirror." Richard Parry leaned into the crowd, beating his drums above people's heads. Band members shouted the lyrics, even if they didn't have to, even if they didn't have a microphone. Every piece of the 10-member ensemble was doing something always, even if that meant playing sleigh bells and moving with the music like they were having the times of their lives. And they probably were, because when Régine Chassagne's walloping kick drum met thousands of jumping feet in perfect time during "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)," it felt like the whole place was going to crumble, like the balconies were going to fall and the windowsills would crack and the power would be out forever. The sound in the room wasn't the best, but the band found a way to make the mammoth room too tight to matter: The Arcade Fire—who long ago burned their lyrical, musical and symbolic sense of subtlety at the stake in order to power their larger-than-life presentation—are now playing most of the large concert halls in America. And they're still too big for them.
I, of course, would love to say the indie rock thing that's expected, that they were much better in the smaller clubs, when most of the kids shouting above the resonator mandolin of "Keep the Car Running" didn't even know who this triumphant little band from Montreal was. But that would be a lie: When The Arcade Fire left the stage after 12 songs and two encores Wednesday night in Asheville, every bit of clothing they wore was covered in sweat, and at least six drumsticks were broken and scattered on the floor. If this band's lost anything in the last three years, it's the need to live up to any hype.
To see the video, visit stream.qtv.apple.com/qtv/toolshed/merge/arcade_ref.mov.