My Story: Richard caught Arcade Fire’s Panorama masterclass
Richard Amico went to see Arcade Fire headline Panorama in New York City. This is his story.
A few weeks back, I happened to make my way past Tufts University—a small college located just beyond the city limits of Boston. It was here in 2004 that Arcade Fire, in their current form give or take a few members, first cut their teeth as a band. Twelve years later, that same group would take the main stage at Panorama.
Waiting with an eager crowd on a hot and humid night on Randall’s Island, it was hard not to think of the journey this band has been on. Going from small, intimate venues—such as Tufts’ Hotung Café—to a sprawling stage at festival attempting to establish itself as the premier music experience of New York City.
To the previous point, the most interesting aspect about their performance on Friday may have been the very fact that Goldenvoice had identified AF as a headliner for their inaugural New York festival. Much has been made about the festival wars playing out in this city (see this Stereogum article), so the decision to include Arcade Fire suggests that the band has not only reached a level where headlining slots are appropriate (that’s obvious at this point), but that their reputation has grown so large—outstripping their once modest presence associated with gigs at liberal arts colleges—that they could assist in an effort to legitimize an entire festival. (The same goes for fellow headliners, Kendrick Lamar and LCD).
And so, as the sun finally slipped behind the New York skyline, the band finally greeted the crowd—quietly marching to their respective stations on stage. (Not before a few technical difficulties that the crew worked through minutes before)
They began the night in much the same way they’ve commenced every other appearance during this brief tour. “Ready to Start” followed by “The Suburbs,” ”The Suburbs (Continued),” and “Sprawl II.” The rest of the set followed suit. Win and co. made their way through their entire discography by presenting albums in chunks. First The Suburbs, then Reflektor, followed by Neon Bible and Funeral. A few songs, such as “We Used to Wait” and “Here Comes the Night Time,” broke up the pattern at times. If you were to just review the setlist, the band came off as workmen-like.—taking a “shut up and play the hits” approach to the evening.
But the moments between and even mid-song told the real story of the night. “Reflektor” and “Afterlife” were presented as a tribute to their departed patron, David Bowie. As Win mentioned, New York was, ostensibly, Bowie’s home and so it only felt appropriate that the band would take the opportunity to pay their respects in front of an audience of thousands. Casting their admiration and uninhibited affection into the night before them.
The band’s set also came one night after Donald Trump’s paranoid and excessively jingoistic acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. As the band prepared to play their Neon Bible tracks, songs fueled by political rhetoric dating back to the mid-2000s, Win made an emphatic and emotional statement on Trump’s candidacy—going so far as to call him a “KKK sympathizer/apologist.” (I can’t remember the exact wording anymore.)
Those sentiments clearly resonated with crowd—immediately carrying over to “Keep the Car Running,” The lyrics were presented with a seething anger and the audience reciprocated with just as much vehemence. Those feelings spilled over into “Intervention”—introduced with an account of Régine’s family history. Her father’s military service served as a condition for American citizenship—a clear dig at the current discourse over the issue of immigration in the States.
As the Neon Bible tracks faded, the overall tone and tenor of the evening shifted in accordance. The energy remained, but was instead transformed into something communal and convivial in nature. Uniting the crowd even if the world beyond Randall’s Island remained out of order.
All of this culminated in the form of “Wake Up.” A song previously leveraged as a concert opener that has since become a cathartic signal that the night is drawing to a close. Once delivered with brute force, almost violent, “Wake Up” now shimmers—acting as a bonding agent for whoever happens to be watching. This was only reinforced by the added presence of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band—who played Panorama earlier that day. (As an aside, see PHJB if you have the chance!)
If you’ve been following the band’s activity these past few years, you may recall that a similar experience played out at Coachella in 2014 and, more recently, at the second line in honor of Bowie in February. Likewise, the two groups collaborated a few months back (along with David Byrne) at a Montreal-based Kanpe event. All of this speaks to the burgeoning relationship Arcade Fire has developed with New Orleans in recent times.
With the band closing out their contractual obligations to Panorama, the two forces—AF and PHJB—departed the stage only to recreate the aforementioned second line, wading through the crowd for at least 150 yards to the middle of the festival grounds. As the bands offered up spirited renditions of Bowie staples, “Suffragette City,” “Rebel Rebel,” and “Heroes,” it was hard not to think that something wholly unique was unfolding.
A fundamental element of any Arcade Fire song is the idea that “we’re all on this together.” In that moment, just around midnight in New York, here was the band living out that very credo—not singing to fans, but with them. Musicians and spectators merged as one. And so that was how my night ended—walking back to meet my friends as the sounds of megaphones and trumpets faded into the background. It was comforting to know that at the very moment the band was right there in the trenches with me.
Brilliant. Thanks a lot Richard!