Like life, concert enjoyment is all about managing expectations. And the Arcade Fire did a terrific job of lowering their threshold for success on the Infinite Content tour, which brought the Canadian band to the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia on Sunday night.
For starters, the ensemble led by husband and wife Win Butler and Regine Chassagne released Everything Now, their fifth and most inconsistent album, a collection that takes pains to make not terribly insightful points about how the modern condition of 24/7 immersion in digital stimuli is, like, not good for your soul.
The marketing and social media campaign for the album was marked by silliness meant to remind us that an Arcade Fire album release is an event of serious consequence. Conflicting signals were sent on whether there would be a "hip and trendy" dress code on the Infinite Content tour. The band got slammed by the music blog Stereogum, then wrote their own faux album review on the mock site Stereoyum.
The shenanigans continued Sunday night in the run-up to the band's taking the stage, which was set up to resemble a boxing ring in the center of the not-full arena floor. A faceless CGI cowboy on video screens above asked the crowd whether they were "ready to rumble" and self-mockingly directed the crowd to buy a T-shirt: "How are you going to remember the concert if you don't have a souvenir? Your memory is not what it used to be!"
But a funny thing happened on the way to the squared circle, as the nine members, introduced as "the main event, collectively weighing 2,100 pounds" entered through the crowd, high-fiving fans as the video screen proclaimed their career record to be "Wins: Always; Losses: Never; KOs: Infinite."
The Arcade Fire remembered that they're a great live band. Which is not to say they put the high concept aside and simply got around to playing their frequently anthemic, groove-oriented songs with passion and commitment. They did do that, with plenty of energy and communitarian spirit, but they also brought it off with considerable visual panache in a freewheeling, smartly staged evening that was plenty showbizzy without ever coming off as too slick.
Never mind the unevenness of Everything Now, and for that matter, Reflektor, the group's less-than-stellar 2013 follow-up to The Suburbs, their last truly terrific release and the 2010 Grammy album of the year. Plenty of attention was paid to the new album, accounting for some of the weaker moments in the show, from Butler's quasi-rapping in the mild funk workout "Signs of Life," and the tour titling "Infinite Content," played in its thrashy, rather than country, version, was no better live than recorded.
But those were exceptions. For the most part, the band's career-spanning two-hour set, which reached back to 2002's Funeral for "Neighborhood," and "Haiti," in which the stage got even more crowded with the addition of two dancers from the Caribbean nation where Chassagne has family ties, brought their recorded output to vivid life.
Butler often stood on a riser at center stage that slowly spun in a circle — longtime Philadelphia-area concertgoers might have felt they were back at the Valley Forge Music Fair — and the show was successfully plotted to keep fans visually stimulated.
Chassagne — who played violin and keyboards and tapped a liquor bottle with spoons for a percussion trick as her husband sang "We Don't Deserve Love" from the audience to start off the encore — took to the crowd to disco-dance under a mirror ball during the effective if not inspired "Reflektor." And she assumed front woman duties on Everything's "Electric Blue," and The Suburbs' "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," a show highlight.
Butler grew up outside Houston with his bandmate brother Will, and before playing piano on "The Suburbs" — he also switched off between guitar and bass — he dedicated the song to flood victims in Texas, and urged donors to also direct their efforts to help those outside U.S. borders. As the dubby "Here Comes the Night" blended into "Haiti," he expressed empathy with immigrant populations and declared: "This is our country: Let's take it back!"
A locomotive version of "No Cars Go" from 2007's Neon Bible was prefaced with a recollection of playing Philadelphia First Unitarian Church on a bill with fellow Montrealers the Unicorns. A quiet and calm take on the Neon Bible title cut, voiced with grace by Butler, an underrated vocalist, was rendered all the more effective as seemingly everyone in the crowd lit up the room with smartphones.