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Arcade Fire gives everything to United Center amid allegations

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Arcade Fire wasted no time in declaring their goal on Saturday at a nearly full United Center. “Gotta get the spirit out of me,” vocalist-guitarist Win Butler repeatedly sang during the opener to “Age of Anxiety I.” As if answering in agreement, his wife – multi-instrumentalist/singer Régine Chassagne – echoed him.

The release of raw emotion and the search for authenticity defined the nearly two-hour show, which never quite transcended an aura of tension caused by allegations brought against Butler this summer. The performance also showcased Arcade Fire’s attempt to re-engage with the fast-paced stadium style that in the mid-2000s helped the band quickly move from smaller clubs to bigger venues. Coincidentally, Chicago played a key role in the band’s rise.

In 2005, before Lollapalooza became a festival destination synonymous with teenage fans, Arcade Fire delivered a triumphant set as first-timers at the resurrected, then two-day event in Grant Park. Held amid sweltering heat, the concert made national news and sparked a wave of momentum. For much of the next decade, the collective stood at the forefront of the indie rock community – respected not only for their music, but also for their inclusive attitude, social conscience and philanthropy.

Even though the band struggled to find a cohesive creative foundation on “Reflektor” (2013) and “Everything Now” (2017), their reputation remained intact. More awards and acclaim followed. Still, the Arcade Fire character has recently been called into question after several people accused Butler of sexual misconduct that allegedly happened before the pandemic. An investigation report from Fork magazine surfaced in late August, days before the band embarked on their current world tour.

Arcade Fire performs at the United Center.

Butler, who has admitted the extramarital affairs, maintains the interactions were consensual and he has apologized, spoken of a bout of alcohol and depression and disclosed mental health issues. Chassagne released a statement supporting Butler and their partnership.

No one in the group addressed the questions on Saturday. Still, it was impossible to ignore the unspoken unease — similar to the vibe you feel when faced with a moral dilemma surrounding something or someone you admire — that hung in the air. Spectators in several markets demanded ticket refunds or called for a boycott. Some have suggested that the tour be cancelled. Indie-rock peers Feist and Beck, originally slated to open some stages of the trek, have filed the bill.

Circumstances present a challenge for an ensemble whose songs invite participation and whose ethos is nurtured by community – its latest record is ‘We’. Arcade Fire’s once seemingly unbreakable bond with its followers may be severed. Fans were also faced with a dilemma: is it still okay to celebrate and reunite with thousands of strangers and the band as one voice?

Arcade Fire Saturday did almost everything in its power to forge a shared connection and hint that optimism, kindness and understanding are still possible in a polarized age. The group’s interactions – spontaneous, wild, sometimes rambling – eschewed the deft moves now commonplace in many arena shows. So did his refreshingly unpredictable set, which varies every night and doesn’t need to be tied down to scheduled cues or expensive props.

The band was about as hard hitting as a band could be in an arena. He approached the occasion as if it were a party around the corner. The members took turns on various instruments scattered around the stage. Haitian multi-instrumentalist Paul Beaubrun and Butler often played standing on monitors. Butler also waded through the crowd several times. Not to be upstaged, Chassagne traded high-fives as she jumped onto a second platform where she climbed onto a piano. Both intimate and larger than life, the presentations suited the music.

Addressing a host of themes of great concepts, songs sparkling with energy and conviction. The most feverish compositions worked overtime to compel anyone within earshot to submit to their giant hooks and propelling beats. The end goals of nearly every track: to achieve spiritual community through singing and dispensing tender counsel that we all walk through life together.

The catchy “Rebellion (Lies)” came across as the sound of a unified community via an edgy bassline, blown whistle, hand drum, and wordless chorus. The strumming of a 12-string acoustic guitar, lush melody and whistling accordion on “Lightning I” gave way to signature double-time and garage-rock pulses on the interconnected “Lightning II”, whose the adrenaline rush underlined feelings of hope, inspiration and enthusiasm.

Chassagne and company also sang about innocence (“Quartier #1 (Tunnels)”), defiance (“We Exist”) and escape (“No Cars Go”) – with the threats of modern reality and the void of consumer culture never far away. “Reflektor” belied its carefree electro-funk symmetry by dealing with dotted dreams and personal detachment; mechanical synthesizers and shouted calls on “Creature Comfort” complemented the narrative terror, pain and despair at hand.

Even in the face of America’s decline (“End of the Empire I-III”), however, Arcade Fire found reason to believe in it (“End of the Empire IV (Sagittarius A*)”). The band also knew enough to play off its seriousness and density with well-placed humor. A family of smiling-faced, inflatable tube puppets suddenly appearing during the heartfelt folk of “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)”? Stupid and fun. Satirically condemning instant gratification and excess via sugar-coated, dance-friendly grooves (“Everything Now”)? Go ahead, strike a pose.

“Can we just solve the problem / Shout and shout until we solve it?” Chassagne and Butler sang together on “Afterlife,” a song whose lyrics resonated with deeper meaning. Let the larger conversation begin.

Bob Gendron is a freelance critic.

Setlist at the United Center in Chicago on November 12:

  • “The Age of Anxiety I”
  • “Ready to start”
  • “District #1 (Tunnels)”
  • “Life after death”
  • “Reflector”
  • “We exist”
  • “Creature Comfort”
  • “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)”
  • “Lightning I”
  • “Lightning II”
  • “Rebellion (Lies)”
  • “No Car Passes”
  • “The suburbs”
  • “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)”
  • “Unconditional II (Race & Religion)”
  • “Spread II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
  • “Everything Now”
  • End of Empire I-III
  • “End of Empire IV (Sagittarius A*)”
  • “1979” (Smashing Pumpkins cover)
  • “Wake up”

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