I'm visiting the restroom in the basement of the Judson Memorial Church when the strains of "No Cars Go" float downstairs. "Jesus Christ!" I hiss, and then clap my hand over my mouth. Church. Right.
Feeling like I should be reprimanded for my tardiness, I guiltily dart upstairs into the chapel, but no one could give two shits about this hack of a journalist because a massive Neon Bible is creating a halo above a pack of exuberant Canadian musicians. The crowd is at once ecstatic and reverent, drinking in a song they first heard on the Arcade Fire's self-titled EP, now resurrected in splendor in this stained-glass chapel. We're treated with "Haiti" next, another familiar tune, and handclaps abound. Coffee and water are the drinks of choice on stage; no booze that I can see. Lead singer and lyricist Win Butler, a true master of stage banter, explains between songs: "My doctor told me to stop doing shows, and to go home and sleep... but here I am!" His face splits into huge grin, masking the fatigue that comes with a solid month of touring Canada and the U.K.
Tonight is the second of five (count 'em) sold out dates at this little church in Washington Square Park. While stumbling through the slushy streets of Manhattan, I felt as if I should have been wearing a sign announcing my destination, in hopes that my intent would make up for my obvious lack of street smarts. Tickets for this show popped up on craigslist.com mere hours after the 5-minute sellout, with prices topping $600 a pair.
Butler is obviously wise to this. "I had a dream last night," he tells us. "I dreamed that I was sneaking people into this show, but some people were getting upset that they weren't getting in and others were, so I threw all of these wristbands up in the air for people to catch, and then they all fell on the floor and people walked on them." Nice dream, but everyone in this room knows they had a stroke of luck in getting here tonight.
A flying leap is the best visual I can give for how the Arcade Fire launch into "Black Mirror," the radio-friendly single from Neon Bible. I was admittedly not impressed when I spun it on my radio show, but live, it took on new, er, life! There's as much to watch as there is to hear, and the lights catch Richard Reed Parry's silver upright bass as Regine Chassagne holds her face in her gloved hands as she sings. The resulting effect is positively angelic, echoing throughout the church in heavenly waves.
Butler introduces the pipe organ-fueled masterpiece that is "My Body Is A Cage" and nods to Chassagne. "We don't celebrate Valentine's Day in Canada... but this is for my wife." For the first time, I notice the aforementioned instrument on stage and get chills.
"Windowsill" brings on a change of pace, moderately timed with singing string solos, and as the audience remains positively pious in nature, we're laughingly reprimanded by Win: "Stop being so quiet! I know it's a church, but... okay, everyone pick a word, like 'turtle' or 'fuck,' and yell it! Talk to your neighbors!" The band is soaked with sweat at this point and Win's bro William's eyes are squeezed tightly shut in a smile that seems to run in the family.
There are 11 new reasons as to why the Arcade Fire can sell out a lower Manhattan church five nights in a row, and one of the better arguments is the shoegazy use of violins on "The Well and the Lighthouse." "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" and "Rebellion (Lies)" from Funeral send the crowd dancing with familiarity before we're sobered up by "Intervention," the majestic, pipe organ and choir-heavy track from Neon Bible. It's the last song of the set, but we barely have time to get depressed as the band exits and enters again almost immediately, armed with extra French horns. The deceptively mellow "Ocean of Noise" ends with a raucously organized orchestral flourish. I'm scribbling madly and nearly become one with a French horn by accident as the musicians stream through the audience.
The wind is whipping the snow madly as I stumble outside, but I'm humming "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" to myself in a glazed state of bliss, thinking that was an excellent song to end on, indeed. I'm still seeing trails from the gigantic Neon Bible, and while that may not have been a religious experience, it's the closest this heathen's been in a long time.