"It wouldn't be the first time we thought something was funny that no one else thought was funny," Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler consoled the audience that came to see the band play Friday night for the first of two back-to back shows at 299 Meserole St., a warehouse art gallery in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We had just been pranked by the band. Before the show started, the attendees (dressed in costume or formal attire, as was required) crowded in around what appeared to be the stage, complete with a banner for "The Reflektors." In fact, this was a decoy. After a brief introduction by James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem fame), a few figures in oversized bobblehead masks, likenesses of the band members that were featured in the music video for their new single, "Reflektor," came on stage and performed something shapeless and noisy for a minute or so, seeming to confirm my worst fears about the makeshift venue's acoustics. Meanwhile, a clamor of percussive instruments started to build from the black curtain covering the left wall of the room. Confusion turned to disbelief turned to joy as those of us near this wall realized we would now be front-and-center. The black curtain parted, spilling forth bright blue light, and the crowd surged toward it in a violent mosh-tide that swept me yards from where I originally stood. In a miracle of creation, Arcade Fire emerged out of a black nothingness onto a glittering stage.
Correction: we weren't seeing Arcade Fire but The Reflketors, a band from Montreal who had heretofore only played houses as big as 200 people but now found themselves facing thousands of rowdy, adoring fans. A band who happened to cover a couple of songs by, you know, just another Montreal band you're more likely to have heard of. Or so went the conceit; the band stayed in character as The Reflektors throughout their set, Win's stage banter insisting on this assumed identity. For their set, they played more of the kind of expansive but danceable grooves that were unveiled in their post-SNL special, plus a couple of familiar hits that brought the audience to a frenzy. As I had feared, the acoustics of the low-slung warehouse weren't ideal for delivering the new songs, but that didn't stifle the songs' inspired energy, much less stop anyone from having a good time.
A friend remarked before the show that it was pretty cool that Arcade Fire, one of a few "it" bands of indie-rock fame, was still able to play what felt like an underground show at an obscure location in Brooklyn. I pointed out that there were no doubt plenty of people who wanted to go to the show who couldn't get tickets. It wasn't as if their fame didn't exceed the scope of the venue. Win himself revealed during the show that only 200 tickets were left when they went on sale to the general public the day before the show, after a pre-sale for fans who had pre-ordered their upcoming double album, out October 29th on Merge, cleared out the rest. He also apologized for the fact that tickets were reportedly being resold on StubHub for as much as $500 (just "humanity doing its thing," per Win). Arcade Fire's choice of venue inevitably lent an element of exclusivity to the evening, and there's a thrill in seeing a big-name band in an underground venue. Still, a relatively small venue in America's largest city was a somewhat awkward fit for a band that's been worshipped for almost a decade.
No matter -- Arcade Fire has earned the freedom to operate on their own terms. Like Radiohead, who broke with their record label after amassing a global army of devout fans and self-distributed In Rainbows on the web on a pick-your-price basis, the band is writing its own rules on rock stardom. In a certain sense, their latest move -- morphing into The Reflektors, an arty, semi-retro, disco-infused rock band that wouldn't be out of place performing in a Bushwick loft - is a way to escape the trappings of this very stardom. It's a disguise that suspends our expectations of the big-name indie band they've become, one that empowers them to interact with their fans in novel and exciting ways. Friday night's show in Brooklyn felt like a nostalgia trip for a band that might have cut its teeth in similar places, an homage to a whimsical, bohemian art-collective lifestyle. For us in the audience, it was an exciting taste of this lifestyle, a happening that evoked a world of underground, DIY performance where the normal rules don't apply. The stage bait-and-switch was exhilarating participatory performance art, not standard rock concert fare.
But rule-breaking can confound as well as excite. After playing for about an hour, The Reflektors left the stage. The last song led seamlessly into a recorded track, which made their absence feel like an intermission rather than an ending, and the audience waited with faithful curiosity to see what the trickster band's next move would be. Eventually, the patience of the faithful gave way to the customary chants for "one more song," and Win returned to the stage, dressed down in a Ramones t-shirt, to announce that they weren't playing any more songs. "If that's a total bummer, I'm sorry," he said, sympathetically but not remorsefully. "If not, you're welcome to stay, we've got a DJ and we'll be out there dancing if you want to join us." It was hard to know whether to take Win's announcement at face value (fool me twice, shame on me...), and the implacable audience kept chanting a bit longer before conceding defeat.
Unlike the band's posing as The Reflektors, Win's invitation was entirely guileless. The purpose of the evening, it seemed, was to throw us an unforgettable party where Arcade Fire's performance was just a part of the festivities. Ultimately, it was impossible to be disappointed with the experience they had curated for the evening: there was the phenomenal, eclectic DJ set before the show, when people wearing the band's bobblehead masks danced among early arrivers (presumably it was the band itself, relishing the power of disguises - or were they decoys, too?); a crowd that looked glamorous, outlandish, or both; a gloriously well-executed practical joke; and, to top it off, an inspired set consisting mostly of brand-new songs. In sum, it was an underground disco masquerade headlined by Arcade Fire.