It was a 2 1/2 hr drive down the coast to Big Sur. As I hugged the treacherous curves it was hard to keep my eyes on the road. I was in awe of the view as the sun set down beneath the coastal clouds. I stopped briefly at the Bixby Canyon Bridge to take it all in. The tide was high and the frothy white surf was battering the craggy rocks below. You could smell the sweet salt water and feel the damp cold air as it penetrated my layers of clothing. "Magnificent!" I thought to myself, "What a treat for all the senses, and this is just the beginning..."
I wasn't just driving down the coast aimlessly; I'd come for a singular purpose: to see Arcade Fire at The Henry Miller Library in Big Sur. Unless you've been living under a rock, you're probably well aware that there were only 300 tickets available for this uber-huge band at this quaint and tiny venue.
As you approach the region known as Big Sur, Highway 1 changes from driving nerve-wrackingly close to the edge of a coastal cliff to being enveloped in a forest of giant redwoods. My nav system told me I had another mile and a half to go, but I knew it must be mistaken as I slowed and saw car after car parked on the narrow sides of Highway 1. As I rounded the bend, I saw a thin line of some 200 darkly clad people snaking down the side of the freeway. At the head of the line was a small wooden sign a giant tour bus and two semi-tractor trailers. This clearly was the place.
The evening's entertainment began with a yet-unknown-to-me gent with a baritone sax , a looping deck and the lung capacity of an ox. I had wifi access, so I was able to find out from the twitter-sphere that it was Colin Stetson - more on that later. As I looked around to ask who it might be, I noticed Win watching a few feet behind me. He seemed to be enjoying the opener, but clearly seemed unsure about the crowd. We made eye contact a few times, but I decided it was best to leave him in peace. The rest of those milling about in back by us seemed to take the same stance and he was able to watch the set in peace.
Arcade Fire opened with a reflective "The Suburbs" sporting Win on vocals and piano. Everyone was in fine form, and each song seemed to involve even more instrument swapping than usual.
I'm amazed that the band's energy was at least as high as it had been at the 8,500-person Greek Theater show a few days before. At that show, Will had grabbed a drum and ran around the lip of the bowl. Halfway into the Big Sur set, Will grabbed the aforementioned drum, but to my surprise, he didn't head for the fans, it appeared a fan headed for him. I'm used to the usual drunk-guy-storming-the-stage and figured there's always one in every crowd. However, it quickly became clear that this wasn't a rabid fan but a shill from their crew (the backstage pass on his chest gave it away.) They tussled like two energetic puppies, with big grunts and grins, throwing shoes, grabbing and shoving each other for the length of the song.
Win got more chatty as the night went on. He told of a special connection he has with Big Sur because of a well-beloved high school teacher who was a beatnik friend of Ferlinghetti. He was also full of praise for their crew that had made the show possible. His longest banter centered on the weather. "We were going to soundcheck, but then it started raining, so we didn't," said a resigned Win. "It's alright." But you could tell he was concerned as a light drizzle began.
"OK, all together - NO RAIN!" Win exclaimed. We obligingly chanted along with all the enthusiasm we could muster - eager to please - but all the while knowing the futility of our efforts. It was the first of many audience participation moments.
"It better not f---ing rain," Win mused, looking quizzically at the sky as be began to besmirch the California crowd. "I trusted you. I was told you had a power crystal! Don't f---ing rain! Where's your magic crystal now?" The stars were still clearly visible above all our heads, and it hadn't rained in months, so the light spray of raindrops was a mystery to us all.
Luckily the rain was light and brief, and the band was able to continue through their catalog. Unlike most of their recent shows, they placed "Ready to Start" in the middle of the show instead of the opener. In addition, this intimate setting found the players mixing it up even more than usual (at least for this tour) with Win often taking up residence on keyboards at the rear of the stage. The songbook choices were equally weighted between Funeral, Neon Bible and their current release, The Suburbs.
On this special night, we were treated to an expanded lineup thanks to a guest appearance by woodwind and brass player extraordinaire, Colin Stetson. Stetson was also the evening's opener, performing 20 minutes of looped other-worldly lung-busting instrumental baritone saxophone.
"There's this crazy sound on the record," Butler explained about The Suburbs. "And it's Colin Stetson on the saxophone. This is the first time Stetson's playing the saxophone with us in person. That is, unless you consider being in the studio playing 'in person,' which I personally don't. The suspense is killing me -- it's going to be great!"
RÃ©gine then got behind the keyboards and launched into the rhythmic and repetitive introduction to "We Used to Wait." -- and we did have to wait -- and wait! She continued on bar after bar, for over half a minute without the song taking form. Meanwhile, Butler began to rif. "The show ends at midnight, right? So we could do this for a while... Why not?"
He then reminded us, "At midnight, it's gonna be Will's birthday, by the way. We've got two more hours of vampin'... Yup, we could vamp." He then got the idea that we all should sing, 'Happy Birthday' to Will.
"We could do it kinda like a funky-kind-a-whatever..." at which point RÃ©gine began the melody to "Happy Birthday," and everyone on stage got a bit silly. Win then lead the players and the crowd in minor-key version of 'Happy Birthday' and he became more emphatic, "We got a sax, right? Sax it up. Sax solo!!!"
Colin wasn't biting. A few bars later Win continued to plead, "Now Colin Stetson-- the first sax solo ever performed on stage with The Arcade Fire!" Colin must have thought him in jest, but Win was quite serious, but Colin was still having none of it.
"Come on!" Win implored. And then led everyone in a rousing chant of "Sax! Sax! Sax! Sax Sax!" but the first Arcade Fire sax solo would be left for another auspicious night as Win finally capitulated and with a grin began singing the opening lyric, "I used to write..." and with that our wait for "We Used to Wait" was over!
A light drizzle finally did arrive as the band was playing what was supposed to be the final song before their encore. Clearly the road crew had prepared for this moment as they began bringing out large plastic sheets to protect the equipment. Win explained "We're supposed to leave now and come back and do two more songs, but we're just going to go ahead right now and play just one. Does anyone know of a good place in LA to buy music equipment?"
They closed the show as they always have in recent times with the powerful anthem, "Wake Up." As the last notes floated up into the now-clearing sky, the band waved goodbye to the small crowd, and Win and RÃ©gine smiled and reached down into the crowd to shake the many adoring hands. Win ended up leaving by stepping down off the small stage and into the intimate crowd, walking through the small dark crowd and up the stairs to the patio as he made his way to the impromptu backstage area behind the Library.
SETLIST - ARCADE FIRE AT THE HENRY MILLER LIBRARY AT BIG SUR 10/5/2010
The Suburbs (Continued)
Crown of Love
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
The Well and the Lighthouse
Keep the Car Running
Ready to Start
Month of May
Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
No Cars Go
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
We Used to Wait
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)