Arcade Fire and Andrew Bird Entertain in Terrific Live Performances

4 Aug

Last week was a terrific week for live performances by indie bands in the San Francisco Bay Area. The appearances included Arcade Fire on Wednesday evening at the Shoreline in Mountain View, Real Estate on Friday at the Fillmore in the City, and Andrew Bird with the Hands of Glory on Saturday evening at the fabulous Mountain Winery in the Saratoga foothills overlooking the Santa Clara Valley.
There were certainly dozens of other indie bands in the Bay Area as well, but these three caught my attention. I made it to two of the three shows — Arcade Fire and Andrew Bird. And wow, what incredible performances!
Arcade Fire did an almost two-hour set of high-energy, indie rock. With up to 12 musicians on stage at a time, a powerful sound system, great rhythm section, and an enormous video screen with spectacular visuals, the show had fans on their feet for the entire time.
Arcade Fire worked hard to please all its followers: Those who knew the band from early albums that were mostly played on college radio. The legions that discovered them with the release of 2010’s Grammy-winning Suburbs. And those who wanted to see the band perform the diverse collection of tracks from Arcade Fire’s most recent release, Reflektor. (These fans were easy to identify because they arrived in formal attire or costumes in keeping with the Haitian Mardi Gras themes of songs such as “Here Comes the Night” and “Afterlife.”
Frontman Win Butler prowled, primped and performed brilliantly. Butler has an interesting background — prepping at Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, studying creative writing and photography at Sarah Lawrence College and finally receiving a degree in religious studies from McGill University in Montreal — where he met his wife, Régine Chassagne, who is also in the band. This multidimensional personality comes through in his arresting and intelligent stage presence and explains the religious foundation of many of Arcade Fire’s songs. Perhaps it also reveals why the visual portion of the performance was so phenomenal — not simply video clips of band members playing, but artistic treatments of the various songs that provided a show unto itself.
No review of an Arcade Fire performance could be complete without a nod to singer/multi-instrumentalist Chassagne, who sang backup and lead vocals, played the keyboards, played on one of the two drum sets the band brought, on bongos, and marimbas. She, too, has a unique presence on the stage — warm and welcoming, full of joy for the music. Marvelous!

Leaving under a hail of confetti at the conclusion of the Arcade Fire show, we made our way to see Andrew Bird at the Mountain Winery three days later. The contrast couldn’t have been greater — with Bird standing trancelike alone on stage performing the first few songs — but the rewards couldn’t have been richer.
Bird opened his show by demonstrating his virtuosity in using looping to single-handedly create complex musical landscapes. On the opening number, “Hole in the Ocean Floor,” he plucks, strums and bows his violin, whistles, adds synthesizer chords, and sets all of these layers in motion at once to create a breathtaking effect.
As the show progressed, Bird was joined by the three-piece Americana band, Hands of Glory — consisting of female vocalist, Tift Merritt, on acoustic guitar, Alan Hampton on upright bass, and Eric Heywood on pedal steel guitar. This allowed Bird to run through a great set of “old timey” songs, and then finally finish with a set of his well-know amplified tracks from recent albums such as Break It Yourself and Noble Beast.
Bird’s music may be an acquired taste for some — with his unconventional (but absolutely amazing!) use of whistling and his ability to strum or pick the violin like a ukulele in addition to playing it with a bow. (Bird is a classically trained musician.) But for us, it was a revelation to see a musical genius up-close in one of the best venues for live performances in the Bay Area.
If you ever get the opportunity to see Arcade Fire or Andrew Bird, I highly recommend it. Real Estate will be on my list for next time.
I’m off from my regular show on Stanford University’s radio station, KZSU, this week — but will return on Friday, August 15th from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. Join me on 90.1 FM or streaming at kzsulive.stanford.edu.
Andrew Bird - Small

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