Here’s the scenario. You bought tickets to see a concert, a high-profile act with an ever-increasing rise in the industry at a large venue. Maybe they are a band you’ve wanted to see for a long time and finally had the opportunity to. Maybe they are your favourite band of all time and you’ve followed their career since humble beginnings decades ago. Three months prior to the concert arrives a harbinger of doom: the dreaded sex scandal. The lead singer has been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple people. What do you do? Do you go to the show anyway or boycott it to take a stand in solidarity?
This was likely the moral dilemma that eager fans were confronted with leading up to the highly-anticipated Arcade Fire show at Rogers Arena last Friday night. As most would already be aware, at the end of August, it came out that lead singer Win Butler had had inappropriate, nonconsensual sexual relations with four individuals between 2016-2020. Please take the time to read the full details in Pitchfork’s exclusive article. Given Arcade Fire’s wholesome image in the public eye and representation of positivity and light in the music scene, a story like this is certainly a bitter pill to swallow. This is the band that we thought got us, that represented us. The long-standing marriage between Butler and band co-founder and lead visionary Régine Chassagne adds an extra layered dynamic, but Regine seems to have been amenable to Butler’s extramarital relations and she is giving her husband her full support at this time.
Arcade Fire is a group of extremely talented musicians with a keen finger on the pulse of modern society, boundless creativity in their records and live show, and an inspiring success story of playing in small Montreal nightclubs to making Canada shine on the world stage. This dark cloud hanging over them now is majorly regrettable. However overloaded we might feel taking on yet another story of this nature, and however inconvenient cancel culture can feel at times, this isn’t news that we can simply brush off: consequences are inevitable. So as a fan, as a music lover, as a ticket holder… what do you do?
Opening for Arcade Fire was Boukman Eksperyansz a Haitian collective rocking traditional and spiritual afro beats down to the ground. This sort of act might seem a bit more at home in the milieu of a folk festival say, and indeed the last time they played Vancouver was for Folk Fest 15 years ago. While this may not seem like the most predictable opener for an indie rock juggernaut, it wouldn’t be too far-removed given Chassagne’s Haitian roots and the band’s ongoing support of the Haitian people as in their philanthropy work, in the wake of the devastating 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake and beyond. In fact, $1 from every ticket sold on this tour is going to a Haitian charity. Despite this connection, however, the unavoidable fact is that Boukman Eksperyansz was a last-minute replacement. Feist had already played two shows opening for Arcade Fire in Europe when the story broke and wasted no time severing ties, dropping out of the tour on principle. For this North American leg of the tour, Beck was slated to open–and a high profile opener at that, making it more of a double bill–but alas, he took the same choice to distance himself from Butler by abandoning the tour. Without a doubt many people would have bought tickets to this show for the chance to see Beck alone, inevitably let down when no option for a refund was extended in response to this change on the bill.
Regardless of the circumstances of how they came to be on this tour, Boukman Eksperyansz brought an explosion of joyful expression in spicy tropical beats paired with irreverent electric guitar riffing. Named for a famous Vodou high priest for the Haitian Rebellion, the 6-piece filled the front of the stage dressed in colourful garb dancing in synchronicity in a row as they sang. The energy was palpable with scarves waving in the air as they bucked and bounced in a lively array. Bringing the love with lively call and response among bandmates, the group got the crowd involved with soulful chanting. Already a well-known band in Haiti, the gang seized every moment of this huge opportunity to gain traction with a wider audience with their simmering feel-good jams. After their nonstop drum pounding and soaring vocals, the band came together in a tight group to perform a final melody, a stunning acapella tune with soulful harmonies to give you chills accompanied only by the rhythmic stomping of feet. They wished us peace and love before exiting the stage.
As a bonus filler to seemingly make up for the loss of a more prominent opener, DJ Cosmo Gonik seamlessly took over from Boukman, spinning his signature beats rather than the usual house playlist. The source of his ebbing music was a sleek set up in the centre of the floor, a little island of a stage walled in by purple, red, and blue beams of light hitting an enormous disco ball overhead, casting coloured light confetti all over the floor. Gonik wasted no time getting into the groove, playing the maracas and cowbell and tambourine along to his curated Latin-meets-Euro-lounge vibes. The idea was really fun, but the sound of his percussing rang out with a delay, off the beat by the time it reached our ears up in the bleachers. Nevertheless, it was easy to get swept up in his infectious rhythms and just how much fun he was having on his island stage, positioned behind a gorgeous glassy transparent piano. Clearly going above and beyond to keep the positive vibes coming, Gonik went out into the crowd to shake his maracas in and among spectators drifting in.
From a quick snoop around online pre-show, the vibe on Facebook comments and message boards painted a picture of an empty stadium, everyone having promptly dumped their tickets into the nearest garbage receptacle and boycotting the affair entirely. One particularly blunt post read: “selling two arcade fire tickets for literally whatever price you want. These tickets are absolutely worthless since the controversy this summer, nobody is buying and everyone is selling so just take them off my hands!” But social movements aren’t what they used to be–our media oversaturation tends to water these things down–and the arena painted a very different picture. Was the floor completely packed? No. Were there empty seats on the many tiers of Rogers Arena? Yes. But it was still pretty darn full. It appeared that the excuses, allowances and justifications had won the day.
A common theme among attendees seemed to be that they were aware of the scandal but they could overlook it for the counterbalance of the band’s positive messaging and image–in short, they trusted Win and the rest of the gang. One person I spoke to told me that he was old friends with one of the supporting musicians in this tour and that he trusted their judgement–that they wouldn’t associate with someone they believed to have been behaving in a way that was truly untoward. I can imagine it becomes even more difficult to see both sides when you are already in the inner circle. But the implication of trusting Win is that you don’t believe the victim, and that is just not an option now. We need to believe women and non-binary people and trust their accounts in order to treat these cases with the respect and justice they deserve. Setting aside the question of morality, probably the biggest factor in the choice to attend was economically driven. As previously mentioned, the tickets were not refundable so the options were either to lose the money and go or to lose the money and not go. The option to vote with your wallet was not there–you would be supporting the band financially regardless of which way you went. The only rational reason to not go, then, would be to not physically demonstrate support with your presence, a gesture that would be largely overlooked in such a large setting. It would be pretty easy to talk yourself into going.
And so here we found ourselves, groups of friends, older couples, parents with their teenage and pre-teen children, all in for what would be, setting all fraught elements aside, an objectively incredible show. The show’s over-arching dystopian thematics started with a snippet from Blade Runner themes playing over ominous tones as astral visuals warped and bent on the half-circle screen framing the stage. The projection settled on a nebulous look of an iris, encapsulating the branding of their new album WE, which takes on the perils of a screen-addicted world and the stress of our era of uncertainty. There was a stir on the floor as a troupe of eight made their entrance, marching in from the back of the arena along the side of the stadium amidst fans, captured by a roving camera that projected onto large screens flanking the stage.
This closeness to the crowd would persist throughout the night, and Win wasted no time offering himself up fully to the mercy of the crowd in the middle of the new single “Age of Anxiety I”, jumping straight into the fray of the first few rows as if to stay, “Here I am, do your worst.” Of course, no one did anything, taken totally off guard by the unexpected gesture. He plunged back into the pit for a second time no less than three songs later during “Afterlife”, slumping despondently to the beer-splashed floor, head down in his feels for the second verse before parting the crowd solemnly to carve a path all the way to the island stage. He proceeded to sprawl out on the surface of the crystal piano, a blatant performance of contrition before the thousands of listeners, as he pleaded “Can we work it out? We scream and shout ’til we work it out.”
Régine was on fire as ever, a dynamo in a small package. She could be found pounding the skins in the back, paying homage to how she learned to play drums to keep the recording of their first album, Funeral, to budget. The reminder of these small beginnings was thrown into sharp contrast as the impressive custom arc-shaped lighting rig cast dramatic inflections as the band energetically performed their first-ever single “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”. Professional broadcasting cameras were on the move, capturing and casting every moment of the action of the small army of musicians onto screens with a retro starry filter effect. An evidently strong francophone contingent in the audience let out the biggest cheer yet when Régine sailed dreamily into the French verse of “Reflektor”, maintaining her ever-glam style, donning a shiny pearlescent overcoat during the number.
The band managed to play the majority of WE in their lengthy set but not to the point of distraction, weaving the new material seamlessly with familiar favourites from their previous five albums. After leading an emotional “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)” in yet another fabulous frock of shiny transparent pink, Régine took to the organ pounding the delicious-looking, candy-coloured keys with passion. The band swelled and swirled around a small village of instruments throughout the show, each one of them showing a baffling range of multi-disciplinary talent. During the epic and anthemic “The Lightning I & II” the accompanying violinist was absolutely shredding her bow on the strings, a member of Boukman Eksperyansz was bouncing from drum to drum, and the brilliant permanent member Richard Reed Parry swapped out his guitar for an accordion as smoke swirled manically in their half-moon bandstand and lightening flashes on the screen above.
The showcase of newer music continued with “Unconditional I”, a happy-go-lucky romp with do-do-do-do chorus. The song is meant to be one big auditory hug to the audience, but the lyrics rang out cringingly apt in light of the recent situation as Butler sang, “Lookout kid, trust your mind/But you can’t trust it every time,” and “Things will break, you make mistakes/You lose your friends, again and again/’Cause nothing is ever perfect/No one’s perfect/Let me say it again, no one’s perfect.” On the last chorus, the band pulled out one of their signature live touches by having six enormous inflatable tube men burst into being along the front of the stage, colourful and fixed with naively blissful expressions. The crowd was floored and let out a big “awww” when they came down. Régine took the lead on “Unconditional II”, opening up her vocal range. She proceeded to keep the theatrics high for “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, taking her turn to cut through the crowd to the island stage, dancing freely atop the glassy piano and feeling omnipotent as the stadium plunged into darkness at her commands to “please cut the lights” in the chorus. As the lights flicked back on for the final time, Régine’s hand exploded with ribbons that she twirled joyously, trailing back to the mainstage in a flurry of colour.
After an already pretty epic sprawling set, the band endeavoured to give the crowd their money’s worth with an extended encore. For this section, the band member assembled on the tiny stage floating in the centre of the floor so that those who had previously had the worst spots now had the best as they stripped back for the “End of an Empire” series, giving sardonic Father John Misty-esque vibes, urging the listener repeatedly to unsubscribe as they waved their phones high, casting hundreds of twinkling lights. After a Wolf Parade cover, all the members of the opening acts joined the band on the increasingly crowded island to take part in the closer of all closers, “Wake Up”, no less epic than the first time you heard it. Progressing from the track’s pulsing opening to its jubilant peak, every let loose and joined in the moment. Seemingly not wanting the moment to end, the tune’s chanted riff carried on for minutes after it had ended, bouncing back and forth between the band and the crowd. An impromptu drumline formed as everyone picked up or strapped on a percussive instrument and the gang slowly wandered their way out a rear door, but even after they were out of sight, the rhythms persisted, lingering through the loudspeakers. The musicians were truly playing us out, assuming the level of the crowd that they had all evening and maintaining their passionate performance even as the auditorium had cleared and the roadies had started packing equipment away.
There is no doubt that each audience member would have been blown away by the two-hour performance and it would be hard to feel regret about attending, but what does that mean for the fate of the back going forward? Can we live without Arcade Fire when it all comes down to it? If you feel torn, I don’t blame you. I guess the true litmus test may be the next tour around when fans will be asked to actively put their money down for a figure of conflict. Maybe then the band will see a drop-off, or maybe fans will feign memory loss and move past it all with blinders on. What happens next is up to us.
Arcade Fire Set List:
Age of Anxiety I Ready to Start Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) Afterlife Reflektor We Exist Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole) The Lightning I The Lightning II Rebellion (Lies) Keep the Car Running The Suburbs Unconditional I (Lookout Kid) Unconditional II (Race and Religion) Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) Everything Now
Encore: End of the Empire I-III End of the Empire IV (Sagittarius A*) This Heart’s on Fire (Wolf Parade cover) Wake Up