Even when Regine Chassagne was singing about “dead shopping malls” and punching clocks as a worker drone, balloons descended, streamers waved, and dancers twerked in skeleton suits.
Arcade Fire is a major indie-rock success story and improbable album-of-the-year Grammy winners in 2013 that occasionally flirts with self-importance. But a giant dance party broke out Tuesday in the first of two concerts at the United Center, with the Montreal band leading the frivolity.
It was a well-orchestrated evening that ran without interruption the minute Devo took the stage, followed by affable electronic composer Dan Deacon. Devo did their de-evolution shtick with darkly humorous songs that still sound twitchy, catchy and avant-garde all at once. Deacon set up in the middle of the audience, as is his custom, and upped the tongue-in-cheek fun by having two fans in frog suits set the tone for a giant dance contest.
The headliners were up to the challenge, with bobblehead masks, skeleton outfits, and a big lineup that had expanded to 12 pieces, including horn, string and percussion sections. Imagine a New Orleans carnival meeting the Talking Heads, circa the expanded funk-army lineup of the “Remain in Light” era.
Arcade Fire has always embraced dance music, with a pronounced Caribbean flavor brought by Chassagne, whose parents are Haitian. But its latest album, “Reflektor,” adds house and disco rhythms to the mix, and the show shot out of the gates on the back of Will Butler’s booming bass on “Here Comes the Night Time.”
In a band populated by multi-instrumentalists rummaging among steel drums, hurdy gurdy, mandolin, piano, organ, guitars, accordion and violin, Will Butler is the wildest card. He’s no longer setting things on fire and wrapping his band mates in duct tape (at least he wasn’t on this night) but he again showed a knack for adding just the right seasoning to each song, whether holding his own private dance party with a synthesizer or pounding a parade drum while wearing an oversized mask. Even his brother Win, the band’s primary songwriter, cracked a couple of jokes at his own expense, turning technical breakdowns into part of the entertainment.
Not everything clicked; the well-intentioned equal-rights statement “We Exist” got ham-fisted with grinding dancers out of a Village People video. And some of the newer songs lacked the melodic punch of the band’s earlier material, particularly the still-crackling anthems from the 2004 debut album, “Funeral.” But the band rarely let the energy dip, whether riding “Month of May” into a chaotic free-jazz crescendo or alternating piano bounce and percussion thunder in “Normal Person.” On “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus),” Chassagne and Win Butler sang with and to each other from opposite ends of the arena, as if separated by the “frozen sea” described in the song. A bold bass line threw down a bridge between them.
Even when things got dire in the lyrics, the body music never stopped. And those bizarre bobblehead guys never stopped dancing.
Arcade Fire set list Tuesday at United Center:
1. Here Comes the Night Time
2. Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
3. Joan of Arc/My Body is a Cage
4. Month of May
5. The Suburbs
6. Ready to Start
7. Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
8. We Exist
10. Keep the Car Running
11. No Cars Go
14. It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)
15. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
16. Who Do You Love (Bo Diddley)
17. Normal Person
18. Rebellion (Lies)
19. Wake Up