The honest artist understands they belong to a historical spectrum and that their work is a conglomeration in homage or response to their multitude of life influences: be they historical, familial, or artistic. One of the most entertaining (read: vacuous, pointless) labors of a music critic is the speculative unraveling of the knot of influences combined in a band’s sound. Isolating the threads and themes can be a platform for exploring the anxiety of influence and asserting a presence in the lineage of treasured rock and roll royalty.
It’s easy to look back, 10 years gone, at when Arcade Fire erupted on the scene and consider their birth Hellenic in its sudden completeness, as if they emerged fully formed from a smoldering Rock’n’Roll Godhead. Yet from the beginning, Arcade Fire have had an open, even fun relationship with the bands whose influence they could not shake, and instead openly embraced.
Both on tour and on record (B-sides, truly), Arcade Fire paid regular homage to the bands and songs they loved from their youth and even showed occasional and sterling respect to their contemporaries.
Photography by Philip Cosores
Arcade Fire reached Arena Legend apotheosis last year when they embarked on the Reflektor Tour. Hardly shirking the trappings of the arena and its attendant grandeur — between epic light shows, the whole dancing bobblehead thing and the request that fans wear “formal attire or costume” — they took ownership of, and even embraced, the ridiculous spectacle of it all.
To coincide with these concert-as-performance-art events, Arcade Fire also upped their cover game to a new level. They opened nearly every show with a regionally inspired cover and closed shows with epic guest stars and further covers. Additionally, Arcade Fire “side-project” Phi Slamma Jamma (featuring Richard Reed Parry, Will Butler, Jeremy Gara and Tim Kingsbury), who had been kicking around for a few years, played regular, “secret,” late-night all-cover shows.
Suddenly, Arcade Fire’s already impressive list of selected cover songs grew tenfold. Amid the hits, there were more than a few misses, and since no fan could be there to see them all, we’ve compiled them into a single list.
Photography by Philip Cosores
Keep in mind, lists like this are completely arbitrary, and this one more arbitrary than most. Though the writers are all avowed Arcade Fire fans, none of us were lucky enough to see more than a handful of these tracks in person. We were therefore relegated to painstakingly watching jittery cellphone videos, admiring set lists, and comparing against the original (in fact, there were several covers with no identifiable documentation).
While this makes our list a smidge (more) specious (than usual), it also gives you, dear reader, an opportunity to set us straight. Was the performance of “Axel F” in LA mind-blowing? Let us know. Better yet, use this opportunity to brag. How many of these have you seen in person? Which was best?
With all that in mind, please join us in this categorical dissection of Arcade Fire’s covers, what they signify in the rewritten history of rock and roll, and whether or not they were totally awesome.
By Boyz II Men
Performed: March 17, 2014, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Let’s give credit where credit is due. At least Arcade Fire veered wildly away from from when they opened their Philadelphia shows with this Boyz II Men R&B hit from 1991. Plus, the horn players must have been stoked to display their swinging chops. But Richard Reed Parry and his backing vocalists don’t have the same depth or tone as the original Philly boyz, leaving this version feeling more than a little flat and uninspiringly ironic. Perhaps we should be thankful they chose not to perform Michael Bivins’ rap (and subsequent a cappella breakdown). –Kristofer Lenz
55. “Dust in the Wind”
Performed: April 26, 2014, at The Starlight Theater in Kansas City, MO
The plucked first opening notes of Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” manage to be both poignant and cheesy, depending on which perspective you take, but there’s no denying that this song is a latter-’70s classic. It was, obviously, a natural pick for a performance by William Butler and some bobbleheads at the Starlight Theater in Kansas City during the Reflektor Tour. There’s just one problem, as Win Butler points out near the end: “That’s a Kansas song, and we’re in Missouri. You fucked up.” The crowd, however, doesn’t seem to care. –Katherine Flynn
54. “Devil Inside”
Performed: January 22 and 28, 2014, at Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, AUS
For two nights, fans in Melbourne, Australia, were witnesses to a cover of native favorite INXS’ killer “Devil Inside”. The chugging guitar line is raunchy as ever and Richard Perry makes a commendable attempt to recreate Michael Huttchence’s original vocals, but ultimately the cover falls well short of the crystallized late-’80s glam perfection of the original. –Kristofer Lenz
53. “Dream Baby Dream”
Performed: August 24, 2014, at Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY
It’s hard to rag on any song featuring Arcade Fire accompanied by a vampiric David Byrne, but this is an odd choice performed … well, oddly. Byrne is entertaining as expected, doing his best Byrne dance and vocal stretching (while wearing a maestro’s tuxedo and white makeup, perhaps). Plus, the original is a haunting early example of pop electronic moodiness. But in Byrne and Arcade Fire’s rendition, it builds aimlessly toward a climax that never comes, as does the original, but live, it leaves one wondering, “Why?” –Kristofer Lenz
52. “Back in Time”
By Huey Lewis and the News
Performed: August 11, 2014, at Rexall Place, Edmonton, AB
For their stop in Edmonton, Arcade Fire paid homage to local son Michael J. Fox by performing this cover of the theme from Back to the Future. While Huey Lewis’ original stands tall among the pantheon of classic ’80s soundtrack songs, this version, while dutiful, trades in irony and little else. –Kristofer Lenz