Videos by Spencer Griffith
Late Tuesday afternoon—one week after Durham's Superchunk and Montreal's Arcade Fire announced they would play free concerts in Greensboro and Carrboro, N.C., as rallies for Barack Obama's presidential bid—Obama campaign officials said tickets were still available for Thursday afternoon's Greensboro show. Meanwhile, easily replicable tickets for Friday afternoon's Carrboro show were selling on Craigslist for $50 a pop. What a difference some interstate blacktop can make.
Indeed, Greensboro's enthusiasm for the double bill on a temporary stage outside of its coliseum Thursday was questionable: Officials estimate between 1,000 and 1,200 people attended the event, which was originally slated for 3,000 people, according to one campaign volunteer. Superchunk, in its first North Carolina appearance in nearly two years, received a mild reception at best. When frontman Mac McCaughan said "There's nothing that makes you want to vote in 2008 like music made in 1993," the humor and clouds of irony seemed mostly lost on his younger audience. Arcade Fire managed to muster a little more support, but a cluster of fans in a small semi-circle in front of the stage seemed almost comical for a band that, last year, nearly topped The Billboard 200 and sold out several of the best theaters in North America. Even avowals of support for Obama—including Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler's statement that "We are about fucking through with the politics of division, and we are through with the politics of fear"—met a general air of spring-afternoon indifference. Maybe it was the asphalt making the kids tired, or perhaps there was simply nothing better to do.
Nevertheless, the 21-song rock show continued with the aplomb and energy that have characterized Superchunk live sets for nearly two decades and those of Arcade Fire for half a decade. Superchunk, who haven't played since a two-show run split between Chicago and New York last year, sounded like a set of continually compressed and sprung springs, whether ricocheting through a mid-set "Tossing Seeds" and grinding through a set-closing "Precision Auto." There was a Magnetic Fields cover, the epic guitar sweeps of "Driveway to Driveway" and, in true form, band banter. Frontman Mac McCaughan told the crowd (who sort of listened) that guitarist Jim Wilbur agreed only to play when he was informed he would have a Secret Service detail (he didn't). Bassist Laura Ballance later teased McCaughan's gender insensitivity when he referred to co-ed spectators in hammocks as two guys.
After Superchunk's 55-minute set, Arcade Fire quickly took to the stage, humbly setting up its own gear and testing its own lines. If anything, it was inspiring to watch a Canadian band (several members also have American citizenship or were born in America) that's conquered much of the musical world in the last five years bus its own gear to support a stateside political candidate. They even drove themselves South in two vans for the two shows, foregoing any expense-covering shows on the way down. Those annals took particular weight when contrasted with the band's music, a finely orchestrated kitchen-sink pop chaos, where hurdy-gurdy, heavy drums and howl-for-the-soul vocals collapse into front-pocket symphonies. Nothing about Arcade Fire's music is indecisive, hummed in or humble; watching them devote something so big to something they feel is even bigger was a welcome sign of artistic and human trustworthiness. That is, those songs—all about social mores and romantic ideals—weren't created in a vacuum. They shouldn't live in one, either.
But maybe Greensboro didn't need to see or hear such a lesson. Perhaps they've already voted or are already dedicated to voting. Hey, you can always dream, right?
The Arcade Fire and Superchunk play Carrboro Town Commons Friday, May 2, at 2 p.m. We'll post videos, photos and a review during the weekend.