If Win Butler is the frontman or the brain of Arcade Fire, Régine Chassagne is the band’s heart. As a “deathly ill” Butler did his best to sing through some of his more demanding songs at the Pepsi Center on Wednesday, Chassagne charmed and pushed her backing vocals from pleasant embellishments to frontwoman status — picking up the reins like any good band member, partner or wife would do.
Looking like she would work in some Quebecois (Quebecian?) candle shop, Chassagne bounded among the 10-plus musicians on stage, gracefully spinning, flashing bashfully contagious smiles, flicking her arms and cradling the bulk of the vocal work throughout the night. And it was likely because of Butler’s sickness that Arcade Fire debuted “Empty Room” for the first time this tour.
Like the title, Arcade Fire began the track as a spacious country ballad, lightly singing “said your name in an empty room,” as the melody slipped through the clearings. Then, as the crowd began to recognize the track, the band kicked the song to full speed, pounding into swirling synths, cymbals and a punk-classic beat all around Chassagne’s vocals. But instead of taking an innocent, almost lost quality as it does in the recorded track, this live version had Chassagne center stage, owning the moment for the first time this tour.
There was a sense that — because of Butler’s unfortunate health problems — Denver was getting to see a unique side of Arcade Fire. There might not have been a surprise appearance of Blondie’s Debbie Harry (which happened at Coachella) or a full-strength band, but this was something organic and improvisational. Arcade Fire was forced into a creative corner, and it was a shame there weren’t more people there to see it.
At its peak, the show was at-best two-thirds full. Before the night’s closing song, “Wake Up,” pounds of confetti fell on vacant seats. From the floor you could clearly see three figures dancing alone in section 330 up in the nosebleeds. They used the whole space to their advantage, flailing arms, jumping from seat to seat, without a care that they were somewhat alone and far away from where the confetti had just landed. It leads to an interesting discussion of where this band is at in its career: Arcade Fire can headline Coachella, win Grammys, command headlines and hit No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200, but can’t play the Pepsi Center without its tickets becoming a Groupon deal? More than anything it speaks to the disappointing booking. The band would have easily sold out Red Rocks, a venue that would have bolstered Arcade Fire’s complex sound and catered to their more audiophile fan-base.
But the empty seats didn’t matter — at least as far as anyone at the show was concerned. Even a decade ago this band’s music was made to fill arenas. Butler prefaced “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” from “Funeral,” Arcade Fire’s debut, by telling the crowd he wrote the song when he was 18 years old and would need help singing because he’s sick. Given new life with Arcade Fire’s larger touring band, each build, piano run and yell felt bigger while at the same time as intimate as it must have when kid-Butler wrote it.
Tracks from the band’s most recent two releases held up alongside the earlier material in this arena setting. To close the main set, Chassagne once again owned the show with “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” She appeared at the soundboard in the center of the arena to sing “Orpheus.” And as the band finished another run of the verse and a quick song break, she casually made her way back to the main stage, taking the microphone with a skip, just in time for her vocals on “Sprawl II.”
As the band took its break, only one question remained: How would Arcade Fire give a nod to Colorado music? Throughout the tour the group has brought a fake band onto its “b-stage” to play a track that paid homage to a local artist. We had fun guessing who it would be, and threw around ideas such as DeVotchKa, John Denver and Earth, Wind & Fire. Part of me was hoping they would pull out something as obscure as the Apples in Stereo, but they ended up choosing the John Denver-written “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which awkwardly transitioned into “Normal Person.”
Ending the night with masks, the aforementioned confetti, “Here Comes the Night Time,” a cover of Ramones “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement” and “Wake Up,” Arcade Fire had proved its versatility and resilience. Given ticket sales and Butler’s health, this wasn’t the ideal situation for the band’s first arena show in the Rocky Mountain region. Yet, proving that it deserves to move to the next level, Arcade Fire took the punches, and even at 75 percent of their normal product, this was a show worthy of a Coachella headlining act.
Seth McConnell is a member of YourHub at The Denver Post and a regular contributor to Reverb.