I used to take spontaneous road trips all the time. Not so much these days. So when a friend offered to drive me to Indianapolis last Wednesday to see Arcade Fire and The National, I instantly took him up on it. It's a good thing I did because I haven't gotten so swept up in a concert for a long time — at least I hadn't before that Dismemberment Plan reunion back in January. (This is where my #nostalgia hashtag would go on Twitter.)
We arrived at Pepsi Coliseum just in time to hear Matt Berninger's first few mournful croons emanating from the arena. By the time we made it inside, "Mistaken For Strangers" was in full swing, with "Bloodbuzz Ohio" fast on its heels. These guys don't make you wait around for the hits.
This was my fourth time seeing The National after sets at The Basement, Lollapalooza and LC Pavilion's outdoor amphitheater, and I can now say definitively that they're much better inside. Outdoors, much of the brooding evaporates into the atmosphere; inside, it forms a cloud of its own, engulfing listeners in The National's sad-sack guitar anthems. They know how to whip up a storm, and while Berninger doesn't always know how to keep up, this time the frantic barks he sometimes substitutes for his usual croon seemed to flow naturally from the brewing energy.
It was a fine performance from one of indie rock's best bands, but Arcade Fire quickly reminded us why they were the headliners at this gig.
This was also my fourth time seeing the breathless Canadian troupe. Their songs were built for arenas even back when they were slaying 400-capacity rooms; now that they're Grammy royalty performing for thousands, those old choruses exude even more grandeur. "Funeral" staples "Wake Up", "Tunnels" and "Power Out" had me shouting lyrics shamelessly and dancing with no inhibition. (Guess all the band's swaying and swooning is contagious.) Those songs have done better than standing the test of time; with a few years of distance what once felt like instant classics now feel like timeless classics.
The newer selections were almost as awesome. I've never been a huge "Neon Bible" fan, but they picked that album's best ("No Cars Go", "Intervention", "Keep the Car Running") and left the rest to rot. And I was surprised to discover that the material from "The Suburbs" stood shoulder to shoulder with the oldies, particularly revved-up opener "Ready To Start".
I didn't even mind when instead of ending the encore with "Wake Up", they followed it with a cool-down "Sprawl II", a groovy theatre-kid update to Blondie's "Heart of Glass". They're a guitar band through and through, but one of the reasons this crew has been so successful is that they never forget there's as much catharsis to be found at the disco as in arching arena rock, and they blend those influences seamlessly without succumbing to contrived hybrid genres.
In fact, nothing about Arcade Fire is contrived. They've never tried to be anything other than what they are. I'd like to think more bands would be this beautiful if only they'd be this bold, but then again most musicians don't have the mojo to make an arena erupt or to send jaded rock critics into fits of ecstasy.