Above: Win Butler, the Exeter Days
That being said, after a few days of not so silent deliberation, I’m proud to move Arcade Fire’s recent string of New York shows into the mini-pantheon that houses my ten favorite live performances (peace out “Piper” from Oswego ’99, you’ve been downgraded to number 11). It feels like hyperbole, but, in all honestly, like the Grateful Dead, Phish, and Radiohead before them, without much pomp and circumstance, Arcade Fire has changed the essence of what the live performance can and should be all about. If a Grateful Dead/Phish show is all about space and a Radiohead performance is all about atmosphere, then an Arcade Fire concert is most certainly all about intensity: the barrage of onstage musicians, the pulsating drum beats, the death-laced lyrics and, especially, the giant, Springsteen-like grandeur of guitarist/frontman Win Butler.
But, unlike the Grateful Dead, Phish, and Radiohead, I still vividly remember a time before Arcade Fire existed and I’m still struggling to figure out how a band can alter the pulse of popular music in less time than it took George W. Bush to screw up his first presidential term. Arcade Fire entered my world less than two years into their existence, in 2004, when my friend Dan saw them in at Arlene’s Grocery (a tiny club whose capacity is only 90 people larger than the group’s roster), and I checked them out for myself about a year later. I liked them enough, especially their cover of the Springsteen rarity “Jersey Girls,” but always figured their hype would eventually outweigh their music. But, in the intervening eighteen months, something incredible happened: Arcade Fire disappeared, created a dark, haunting second album and blossomed from a band you “should check out’ to a band you “needed to see”…multi-times…in a row…in different cities…on the same tour…after careful studying annotated fan-sites like www.arcadefire.net. Bono began playing their Funeral album before his concerts, Trey Anastasio was spotted side-stage at Central Park and, on near consecutive visits, Arcade Fire brought out the New York art community’s two most important Davids (Bowie and Byrne). They underplayed their biggest markets, hid from the media, while allowing A-list celebrities to sell their brand, and, on both Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, I found myself dancing--- err sweating--- through enough shirts at their shows to drive my dry cleaning bill into the triple digits. The music felt good, the energy felt big and the band/audience interaction felt intimate. In a lot of ways, it felt like a Phish show, only with less glowsticks and more hair gel.
Which begs the questions: who is Win Butler, why did Trey pass him his torch, and how the hell do I get in touch with him so I can forward my dry cleaning bills?
And, after some stealth research, this is what I found: Long before he saved indie-rock, or even forged a French-Canadian accent, Win Butler, or Edwin Farnham Butler III as he was known in his prep-school days, attended New Hampshire’s Phillip Exeter Academy with one of my closest childhood friends. He grew up in Texas, not Montreal, where his father worked for Halliburton, and used his mammoth size to score a spot on the varsity basketball team (thus making Butler the coolest thing to not come out of Canada since Levon Helm). According to my friend’s yearbook, he sat at the cool-kids’ table and helped establish an Exeter tradition called Winter Thaw (think A Separate Peace set during Spring Break). From an early age he had both impeccable taste in music (his yearbook cites both Bono and Morrissey) and an excellent command of the English language (an early poem reads: “let me hold you silent dream, before his place wipes me clean”). He played a variety of dorm room jam sessions with Arcade Fire co-founder Josh Deu and Arcade Fire’s current keyboardist, his brother Will. The group’s name is taken from a fire which took place at the local Exeter video arcade or, as my friend describes it, the biggest thing to happen in Andover, NH, since the College Board released its official guide to the SAT. Clearly, Win Butler had something special from the beginning, a charm, a charisma, though one wonders if he’d have the same level of success if he stuck with his original prep-school jamband, Willy Wanker and the Chocolate Factories.
As the story goes, after spending a year studying poetry and art at Sarah Lawrence College, Win Butler dropped out of school and began slinging wooden clogs in Boston (heady). Soon after, he joined Deu at Montréal’s McGill University, met his future wife, a Haitian-born singer named Régine, and changed the face of popular music while I was still figuring out how to change my own sheets (ah freshman year). His story reminds me of another former prep-school hippie, or hip school preppie, who graduated from Taft in the early-1980s and spent the rest of that decade working his way through the northeast’s maze of clubs and keg parties. Like Butler, his family came from a decidedly square background (lest we forget Ernest Anastasio II helped write the SAT) and, I suspect, much like Butler, Ernest “Trey” Anastasio III had at a young age, a charm, a charisma, which allowed him to do something different, something special.
I’ll admit it: I didn’t find Phish during the “Nectar’s-era,” “the Big Ball-era” or even the “Clifford Ball-era,” but, instead, during the high-school yearbook era, which roughly stretched from the release of Billy Breathes until the start of Phish’s first hiatus (was there ever a song more custom designed for yearbook pages than “Chalk Dust Torture.?”) Now, my high-school alma mater is known for many things: the place Barbara Bush spent her pre-teen years, an average SAT score which is easily divisible by the number 1400 and an alumni board filled with names that end in suffixes like Esq., MD and III. But, the one thing my prep-school isn’t exactly known for is its command of the jamband alphabet (indeed, our jam-rock education seemed to stop at the letter d with the discovery of Dispatch and Dave Matthews). The first person in my prep-school class to find the Vermont Quartet, as far as I can remember, was a girl named Sarah, who, in retrospect, probably found Phish through her slightly older brother. She’d talk about the mid-1990s Phish shows I missed (Big Birch ’94, Great Woods ’95) and I wasn’t surprised when I saw her in the hallway the first time I caught Phish at Madison Square Garden. We both kind of looked at each other from a distance and grinned, as if to say ‘what are you doing here.’ Some questions don’t need to be answered.
After graduation, I attended a heady college, stored the Pharmer’s Almanac under my pillow and gradually found the other bands now stuffed together in the favorites section of my MySpace page. I remember bumping into Sarah the summer after our freshman year of college at an early Berkfest, right before moe.’s main stage set. I wanted to tell her about all the new bands I’d found in the intervening year, how Phish led me to moe. and moe. led to String Cheese and String Cheese led to me to the Berkshires, but, instead, we both kind smiled with that familiar grin. Around the same time I also heard her older brother overdosed near the end of his senior year of college---the first person I lost on the long journey from high-school to Coventry. I saw Sarah a few times on Phish’s final tour in 2004 and then again at a Flaming Lips show at Webster Hall, but, as I began to see more and more music, I began to see her less and less.
In retrospect, it feels pretty silly to equate the act of discovering new music to adventurers flocking west for the first time. But, like those settlers, after a band’s time has come and gone…after the hype…after the gold rush, all that’s left is some good music and a hopeful search for the next big thing (and, of course, a web of poorly updated fan-sites).
It’s eerily fitting that as one of my high-school peers ascends to international fame, my high-school hero finds himself court-ordered to live in my college town, to eat at my college coffee shop (“large, no sugar”), shop at my college record shop (“new vinyl player”) and not? drink at my college bar (sorry DAs). After Coventry, my friend and colleague Jesse equated the end of Phish to the proposed final chapter of the Superman saga, when, instead of being gunned down in a Sopranos-style shooting, Clark Kent met his final fate by simply become human. And, if the simple thought of Trey Anastasio wandering through my old college town isn’t enough anymore to make me quit my job at Relix, grow out my latent Jew fro and signup for another four years at Skidmore, it’s certainly enough to remind me that at the end of day, rock-stars are nothing more than normal, talented people with something special.
I guess part of me wishes I saw Arcade Fire at Arlene’s Grocery that night in 2004, before David Bowie sat-in and the gold rush really set-in. But, at the same time, I wonder if that experience would have changed the memory I have of hearing my favorite Arcade Fire song, “Haiti,” for the first time, if that nugget of music would have felt as fresh and original. I tried to remember the first time I heard Arcade Fire at Radio City last week, but I couldn’t focus on my memories. The music felt too good, and the only thing I could think about was how expensive their dry cleaning bill must be each night (I guess you need a Halliburton inheritance to clean ten outfits each night).
Like a not as deep as it sounds scene from Garden State, as I left the show, I saw Sarah in the corner of my eye, talking with a group of friends near Radio City’s marquee. She looked just as I remembered her, perhaps a bit older, cleaner, and all around more “indie-rockafied.” I thought about walking over to her, wondering where she was going, remembering where she had been, but, instead, I stepped into the subway, knowing we’d meet again, sometime after the gold rush.
I was lyin' in a burned out basement
With a full moon in my eyes
I was hopin' for a replacement
When the sun burst through the skies
There was a band playin' in my head
And I felt like getting high
Thinkin' about what a friend had said,
I was hopin' it was a lie
Thinkin' about what a friend had said,
I was hopin' it was a lie
-Neil Young, “After the Gold Rush”