No matter how many Saturday Night Live skits they participate in, or oddball promotional efforts they bankroll, Arcade Fire can never quite seem to fully escape their image as serious artist types. It’s their own fault, though. When the underlying theme of your work is searching for truth in a world that seems to have no meaning, it can be a bit difficult for people to realize that it’s not “all brooding, all the time” up in Montreal. Even the most earnest seekers of meaning like to cut loose at the end of the day.
And the group’s been doing their best recently to earn the title of “World’s Most Eclectic Cover Band.” This past weekend Arcade Fire played the last date of their Reflektor world tour with a hometown show at Montreal’s Parc Jean-Drapeau. This run was their biggest tour ever, included a headlining spot at Coachella and three dates at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center Arena. Their final cover song was Wolf Parade’s “I’ll Believe In Anything,” a tip of the hat to the second greatest anthem crafters to emerge from Quebec in the mid-aughts.
Throughout the tour, Win Butler and company have explored the songbooks of everyone from Stevie Wonder to INXS, often choosing to cover a song from an artist synonymous with the city they’re playing. The covers allowed the band to show off their still-unappreciated sense of fun and reflected (sorry) one of the overarching themes of Reflektor — the ways in which people construct new identities that inevitably reveal who they truly are.
Now we present the top 10 covers from the completed Reflektor tour.
1. “The Cutter” with Ian McCulloch (Echo & the Bunnymen)
Earls Court, London, June 6
Win Butler is a man of diverse tastes. His albums and cover selections demonstrate an appreciation for classic rock, old-school soul, new jack swing, traditional Caribbean music, and avant-garde composition. But at heart, he’s a guy who grew up on college radio and 120 Minutes, and he was never more in his element than performing this Eastern-tinged psychedelic classic from Echo & the Bunnymen’s Porcupine. The group’s expanded touring line-up is put to good use, and Butler looks giddy that he gets to trade lines with head Bunnyman Ian McCulloch. Together, they make the still esoteric plea to “spare us the cutter” sound like a matter of world-shaking importance.
2. “Controversy” (Prince)
Various tour stops
First introduced during a stop at Prince’s hometown of Minneapolis, the group has played it several other times throughout the tour. (Perhaps Win was too busy looking for a pickup game of basketball to memorize more lyrics?) It’s an apt choice. From the sinewy synthesizer funk and lyrics that decry rigid social constructs (“Am I black or white?/ am I straight or gay?/ controversy”), this early Prince single feels like blueprint for the ideas Arcade Fire have been exploring lately.
3. “Dream Baby Dream” with David Byrne (Suicide)
Barclays Center, Brooklyn, August 24
During the band’s three night stint in Brooklyn, Arcade Fire brought out New York legends David Johansen in his Buster Poindexter guise and Marky Ramone to cover classic Ramones tunes. For the final night, longtime band friend David Byrne joined them on stage. Although they’ve previously done a fine version of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” together, they played a cover of downtown weirdos Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream,” a grime-coated plea for hope that has been covered by everyone from Savages to Bruce Springsteen. Also Byrne was dressed as Dracula, so bonus points to him for getting into the spirit of things.
4. “This May Be the Last Time/The Last Time” with Mavis Staples (The Staples Singers/The Rolling Stones)
United Center, Chicago, August 27
This mash-up of the Staples Singers and the Rolling Stones is both a smart music history aside (both singles are closely based on the same traditional gospel hymn) and a chance for Arcade Fire to honor one of Chicago’s greatest soul singers of all time. Butler largely cedes frontman status to Mavis Staples for this one, which is almost always the right decision in this sort of situation. She proceeds to burn down the house as only she can. Who needs Mick Jagger anyway?
5. “Heart of Glass” (Blondie)
Various tour stops
Never afraid to cite their sources, Arcade Fire segued into this classic from Parallel Lines after playing their own open-hearted, dance hall queen classic “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” at several tour stops. They even brought out Debbie Harry to guest with them at Coachella; not that Régine Chassagne ever had any trouble nailing the delicate blend of resilience, strut, and anguish that “Heart of Glass” requires.
6. “Axel F” (Harold Faltermeyer cover)
The Forum, Inglewood, California, Aug 2
Covering Guns N’ Roses or the Doors might have been a lot easier, but this cover of Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F,” aka the song from Beverly Hills Cop, was more unexpected and therefore, more delightful. The result is an epic dancefloor party.
7. “Uncontrollable Urge” (DEVO)
Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, Ohio, March 16
DEVO, along with fellow early Brian Eno-employers Talking Heads, were one of the first bands to put forth the theory that stiff-looking art students with big thoughts could get the party started. Their treaties on the nature of humanity were enhanced, not diluted, when paired with body-shaking grooves. Consider this faithful cover Butler’s attempt to repay the debt. It proves that the “urgggggggggggeeeeee” hook always deserved to be played in an arena.
8. “I Feel It All” (Feist)
Scotiabank Saddledome, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, August 12
Open-hearted Canadians with a flair for ornate arrangements were running the alt-rock game in the mid-aughts. Leslie Feist was aligned with Broken Social Scene, the other preeminent Canuck art rock collective of the Apple Ad Age, but this cover implies that there was never any tension between the two. Props to the horn section for ably nailing the song’s nagging, catchy two-note hook.
9. “Waiting Room” (Fugazi)
Verizon Center, Washington, D.C., August 17
No doubt a sacrilegious act to many, but you have to give Arcade Fire credit for nailing that bass line in this classic Fugazi track. And the fan-made video of an arena full of people and a bobble head Barack Obama going nuts after that infamous false stop? It’s hard to write off as mere trolling.
10. “Motownphilly” (Boyz II Men cover)
Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, March 17
There were more adroit covers performed throughout the tour, but this was the band’s biggest aesthetic reach. Sure, it’s awkward to watch Arcade Fire promise that they are kicking it just for us. However, watching them struggle to give this new jack swing classic its requisite bounce is also one of the most humanizing moments the band offered us during the entire tour, and therefore one of the most successful.