The first thing you notice about the Arcade Fire is that everyone sings. Even those members of the band who don't have microphones -- the violinists (plural), one of the guitarists -- throw their heads back and howl at the ceiling at all the right moments.
The second thing you notice about the Arcade Fire is that the women in the band are wearing dresses and the men are in suit jackets. This could be a nod to the title of the band's magnificent debut album, Funeral, so named because three relatives of the band members died while the album was being made.
The themes, then, are of loss, family, community and continuity. And the Montreal-based band, nearing the end of a tour that brought it to Washington's 9:30 Club on Sunday night, has clearly become its own kind of family. On stage, the members literally hang onto each other at some points and beat each other on the head with drumsticks at others. (Two of them donned motorcycle helmets for that.)
Lead singer Win Butler declared the band the "flavor of the month" last October, after their album came out, the Internet buzz began and the critics swooned. The month has changed, but the flavor hasn't. The 9:30 Club show sold out more than a month in advance, and the band will appear on Late Night With Conan O'Brien tonight. A European tour begins next month.
Believe the hype. The Arcade Fire delivered a confident, urgent, delirious performance Sunday night, beginning with the members forming a haunting chorus to sing the overture to "Wake Up" amid the crash of violins and guitars. Butler's voice cut through: "Somethin' filled up my heart with nothin', someone told me not to cry. But now that I'm older, my heart's colder, and I can see that it's a lie."
Butler pulled the band together over the last few years, after arriving in Montreal as a student. Looking for a roommate, he found bassist Richard Reed Parry. They started writing songs, and Parry brought in a guitarist he used to play with, Tim Kingsbury. Butler persuaded Montreal keyboardist and singer Regine Chassagne to join. She would eventually marry him. And Butler's younger brother, Will, is cutting college for a while to help out wherever he's needed.
A drummer and two violinists round out the group. The result is a full, diverse sound that can be both raucous and delicate, often in the very same song. But the raucous tends to dominate the band's live shows, in a very good way.
At one point during Sunday's concert, Will Butler was drumming on a cymbal so hard it fell from its stand. He picked it up, held it in the air and kept playing. Showing a flair for improvisation, he also banged the stand against the balcony. (At a show in New York last fall, he was reportedly gently reprimanded for playing percussion on an invaluable poster.)
Parry, who joined Will Butler in banging on speakers, the balcony and motorcycle helmets at the Washington concert, said in an interview last week that the band doesn't think much of its current buzz-band status in indie-rock circles.
"I don't feel like it really matters. It's not something you can trust, but I feel confident people like us for what we are," he said. "It's not like our goal was ever to be on magazine covers and then give up."
He's also not concerned about what happens when the buzz moves on: "Enough of the people coming to see us are coming because they really like the album and they like the live show, and I think that will last. I don't feel worried about the lack of longevity that comes with being the band of the moment."
Before the Sunday-night show, a fan gave him a T-shirt that showed the word Afghanistan with an X through it, the word Iraq with an X through it, and the word Canada. Win Butler, who was raised in Texas, joked he was a spy sent to infiltrate the Montreal music scene.
"You guys trusted me," he said to his bandmates. Tim Kingsbury responded, "But you brought us fame and fortune."
The band's 90-minute set Sunday ended with a three-song encore, including one song dedicated to Butler's parents, who drove down from Maine to see the show. It would have been worth it to drive from California to see this show -- a thrilling reminder of the life-affirming value of music.
At the end of the final song, Butler led the band onto the floor of the club, instruments still in hand, wet hair pasted to sweaty foreheads, as the enraptured crowd parted to make way while clapping in time to the music. Butler led his band up to the balcony next and held his guitar high, lingering for a second before waving a final salute.
It seemed the band, as much as the audience, was hoping this show would never end.
The Arcade Fire
What: Appearing on Late Night with Conan O'Brien
When: Tonight, 12:35 a.m.
Where: NBC, Channel 11
Who: A Montreal-based rock band whose debut album, Funeral, is about overcoming the loss of loved ones to find redemption and renewal.