Last night was one of those nights that I will think back on for the rest of my life, thanking God that I was there to experience it.

The Arcade Fire performed at Seattle’s Paramount Theater.


(This photo is from a January show, posted with others here.)

For a few years, my music-loving friends and I have been asking, who will be the next GREAT BAND that will follow in the footsteps of the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, U2, REM, and Radiohead? There haven’t been any signs of that kind of vision, ambition, talent, and energy. Sure, there have been some impressive bands and some new sounds. But where are the visionaries, the band you feel like you could just quit your job and follow, night after night, for the way that they tear down the barriers between the ordinary and the extraordinary?

When I heard The Arcade Fire’s Funeral, I heard the potential. (I was a little behind the game here; it was hailed as the critical favorite of 2004, and I heard in in early 2005.) And the more I’ve listened to it, the more I’ve fallen in love with them. I’d begun to suspect that they might be the strongest candidate for the job of the next “best rock band in the world.”

Last night, all of my doubts were dispelled.

(To see more pics of a recent Arcade Fire show, click here.)

This is like seeing U2 during the October or War tour, folks. Do not miss them. This is like seeing REM during the Life’s Rich Pageant tour, or Radiohead after The Bends. This is a band that’s just catching fire (no pun intended), and they have the potential to be one of the all-time greats. Danny Walter and I were there, thanks to Bryan Zug who scored us some hard-to-get tickets, and we had that distinct feverish feeling that we were experiencing one of the great breakthrough tours in rock history. I half expected to see David Bowie, or Bono, or even Kurt Cobain‘s ghost peering around the corner.

Only one other show in my concertgoing experience has elevated the whole crowd the way The Arcade Fire elevated us last night at the Paramount, and that was my front-row experience at U2’s Elevation show in 2001, on Easter Sunday, in Portland, when Bono performed both for God and for the memory of Joey Ramone, his personal rock hero, who had passed away that afternoon. That night, U2 had clearly achieved their self-declared goal of reclaiming the title “Best Live Rock Band in the World.”

Today, though, that title belongs to The Arcade Fire.

From the time the curtain lifted, the band launched into a complexity of sound and onstage energies that I have never experienced, masterfully veering between carefully choreographed synchronicity and total anarchy.

Imagine a band the size and diversity of Camper Van Beethoven conjuring that soaring U2-level spirit, but giving it the rough and reckless edge of Pavement’s “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain,” combined with the art-rock ambition of Bowie at his best, hurtling through the stratosphere at a speed that threatens to blow the whole plane apart. At times, we felt like we were inside a giant turbine engine at a full roar, and yet you could hear each instrument distinctly, and each band member was singing as though his or her life depended on it. The album did not prepare me for the ferocity and beauty of what they produced onstage. (That video that’s available online, in which David Bowie himself joins them for “Wake Up”? Compared to what we saw last night, they seem straitjacketed and sedated there.)

Remember how you felt the first time you saw The Fellowship of the Ring‘s Mines of Moria sequence, or when you saw Return of the King and camera took you swooping down into the path of those war elephants? That’s how it felt watching this band.

During “Laika,” when Win Butler sings “When daddy comes home you always start a fight,” two band members, Richard and some other rather rowdy fellow, got in a very convincing, knock-down-drag-out fight, tumbling all over the stage, weaving in and out of the band members who just kept on playing as if this was ordinary, and yet the music never stumbled. It was crazy.

Another fellow does push-ups between the songs.

They have a French horn player.

Sometimes they wear motocycle helmets.

Sometimes they THROW motorcycle helmets.

And they use a lot of garage-sale lamps onstage.

They opened with “Wake Up” … the song that U2’s been using this year to warm up the crowd before taking the stage … which was a euphoria-inducing rush. Other highlights included the “Neighborhood” songs, “Rebellion”… well, yeah, all of the highlights from Funeral, plus “Headlights Like Diamonds,” and several more besides. (They covered David Bowie’s “Five Years,” the opener to Ziggy Stardust, beautifully.)

But the greatest thrill came at the end of the show. As Régine Chassagne sang “In the Backseat,” they put down their instruments and vocalized a motif, much like the chorus of “Wake Up,” in quiet and spooky way, and I really thought they were just going to fade out and walk away. But then they each picked up an instrument (these guys rotate on different instruments constantly–a string section, horns, keyboards, accordions, guitars) and marched RIGHT THROUGH THE CROWD, playing as they walked, through the back door. The crowd went crazy. It looked like Seattle wasn’t going to let this band ever leave.

And then, when Danny and I walked from the balcony into the corridor, already raving about how we now have a new band that we will follow to the ends of the earth, we heard more music.

Soon, everyone was running to line the balconies and crowd into the lobby (the Paramount has an elegant, elaborate, old-world decor.) The Arcade Fire had gathered in a group on one of the main stairways and were just having a jam session, covering songs, looking like they are the happiest family band in the world. It was a stunt worthy of Andy Kaufman. I’ve never seen so many people crowded so closely together and so overjoyed.

I am still on a high from this show. Only the U2 live experience compares to this. But we bring so much history to a U2 show, and we know the songs. I had no idea I could be so profoundly affected by a rock show with a band that I’m only just meeting for the first time. This easily surpasses the Radiohead and REM shows I’ve seen. Take 16 Horsepower at their most intense, and then add about seven members to the band, and you’ll get the idea.

I cannot wait to see what these guys do next.

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