How does one play the rock star with a conceptual persona that’s coolly ironic and sarcastic yet still come off as a sincere, actual person to your fans? That’s a scenario that both Arcade Fire and Father John Misty faced during separate Boston concerts on recent nights and managed to pull off in entirely different, largely glorious ways.
Arcade Fire has drawn uncharacteristic flack for its new album Everything Now, an uneven-at-best outing that skews today’s consumerism. It spawned an annoying promotional campaign under the umbrella of the mock corporation EN, whose logo adorned the Montreal rockers’ jackets when they took the stage of TD Garden (and its mostly empty balcony) on Friday.
Oh, but what a stage — a boxing-ring square in the center of the floor where the musicians climbed through the ropes like champions, soon to remind the Garden crowd that Arcade Fire remains one of rock’s most stunning current live acts.
Singer/guitarist Win Butler, his keyboardist/singer wife Regine Chassagne and the band’s other seven members engaged in an artfully choreographed shuffle not to always face the same side of the audience, aided by a rotating central platform for drum kits and some keyboards as well as monitor-like boxes to stand upon.
After the crowd settled in to the opening grooves of the new “Everything Now” and “Signs of Life,” multi-instrumentalist brother Will Butler pushed against the ropes while banging a drum in “Rebellion (Lies)” and the brilliance of the staging grew. As the group lurched into galloping-then-funky polyrhythmic shifts that evoked Talking Heads in “Here Comes the Night Time,” a stage hand unhooked the ropes. But the band was already freed, the music opened up to the crowd.
An anthemic double hit of “Keep the Car Running” and “No Cars Go” added fuel to mid-set, where Win Butler spoke of his hometown Texas friends in the aftermath of Harvey to preface “The Suburbs” (as the overhead screens flashed info on the hurricane relief benefit Hand to Hand) and the band sang the hymn-like “Neon Bible” solely to illumination from fans’ cellphone galaxy. Elsewhere, bars of white light shot from every angle around the stage to suggest a virtual boxing ring. And overhead lights cascaded in “Reflector” to create the shimmering vision of a box of rain, while bookend mirror balls accented the song’s infectious disco groove.
The conceit of the new album was inserted with “Put Your Money on Me,” where the wraparound stage-top screens pumped “infinite content” messages, and the two-hour show eventually fell into smoke-shot bombast with the new “Creature Comfort” and oldie “Neighborhood #3 (Tunnels).” Yet the song “Everything Now” conveys a killer melody, reprised in a wordless encore singalong, a perfect setup for the similar crowd-pumping catharsis of “Wake Up,” where the show-opening Preservation Hall Jazz Band climbed back onstage to join the communal fun.
Butler thanked the crowd, claiming that the night was his “favorite Boston show ever” (with T.T. the Bear’s Place in second). And you couldn’t really dispute him, because for all its structure, the wild stage gave Arcade Fire a new playground.
Father John Misty – the alter-ego of folk-rocker Josh Tillman, once drummer for Fleet Foxes – battles his own cynicism as a matter of conceptual course. And in his case, the Misty persona fuels the content of his art in a way that seems naturally poetic if open to questions about his real outlook and behavior. He’s talked about living on low-dose acid, poked on Twitter, and ranted against our entertainment culture in an infamous festival meltdown after Donald Trump’s GOP nomination.
But there was nothing erratic or controversial about Misty’s sublime show at Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on Wednesday. “I have nothing funny or cool to say,” he told fans, though he noted the oddity of two conversations where the band Slightly Stoopid was mentioned that day, suggesting it could turn into a Twitter beef.
Instead, Misty soared through his three-album catalog over nearly two hours, his hearty voice cushioned by a 14-piece band that included horns and string section for lush orchestrations. Yet the focus remained on the bearded singer’s resigned, satirical lyrics about the tragic comedy of human nature and our culture at hand.
As such, he opened with the first four songs from his latest album, Pure Comedy, including “Total Entertainment Forever” (which suggests bedding Taylor Swift in virtual reality) and “Ballad of a Dying Man,” about someone who wonders if his blunt critiques will be missed. “Eventually the dying man takes his final breath,” Misty sang, “but first checks his newsfeed to see what he’s about to miss.”
The precise, near-album-like delivery was essential to keep the Pavilion audience connected to such word-heavy songs (he didn’t push it by offering the new album’s self-aware, 13-minute masterstroke “Leaving LA,”). But Misty mixed it up, strumming his acoustic guitar to strings and mariachi trumpet on “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” and favoring keyboard-based electronic textures over vocal clarity in “True Affection.”
Misty also balanced his forlorn balladry with showmanship, working the mic stand, pacing the stage and crying “Save me President Anyone!” in “Bored in the USA,” and serving a passionate finale with “I Love You, Honeybear,” where he shook his hand in the air, fell to his knees and blew kisses to the crowd. Even if it was mainly great acting, there seemed to be heart and purpose behind the act.