BY MARK GUARINO | CHICAGO SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER
The Arcade Fire named their fourth album “Reflektor,” but if you were at the United Center Wednesday, there was little chance you would not notice.
A disco ball lowered, splintering light everywhere, singer Regine Chassagne held two mirrors in her palm and shot rays in all directions, and let’s not forget the guy in the many-mirrored bear costume who danced on a platform at the opposite end of the stadium who became a beacon of swirling light.
That light show — and also the balloons, confetti, streamers — signaled the slightly new change for the Montreal band. Ten years ago they hit the ground running with their debut album “Funeral” (Merge) and didn’t stop, culminating with an album of the year Grammy in 2010. Now with “Reflektor,” the Arcade Fire is taking what it is best known for — rock anthems with large group flourishes — and bringing it to the dance floor. The best references here include “Remain in Light”-era Talking Heads with Blondie, intersected with Fela Kuti.
That’s a lot of sound produced by a lot of people — 12 of them, in fact. The Arcade Fire, already a large band with seven members, emerged supersized on this tour, thanks to a small army of auxiliary musicians including Tiwill Duprate and Diol Edmond, two Haitian percussionists, and two horn players, among others.
As impressive as that was, there was just one problem: No one could be heard. The profound and bold sound this band produced washed away inside a terrible sound mix, creating an impressive visual but an underwhelming result. Band members rotated through instruments, trading guitars for drums, drums for keyboards, and so on. At one point, Chassagne and drummer Jeremy Gara played side-by-side drum kits, giving the sense that the flurry of people hitting things in perfect syncopation looked better than it sounded.
The heavy lifting was performed by Tim Kingbury and Richard Reed Parry who rotated between bass and guitar, giving the songs their real bounce and counter-weight, especially on songs like “Haiti” and “Reflektor” that carry a profound Caribbean influence. “Here Comes the Night Time,” a funk centerpiece from the new album, was also a highlight.
Win Butler, the towering lead singer, was dressed entirely in white as he rotated between guitar and piano. He is not the most compelling frontman, but on a song like “Intervention,” he channels the epic reach of Bruce Springsteen, who is also a well-known fan.
The two-hour show had many moments where the dance churn lagged. A separate platform space on the opposite end of the United Center served as performance space for dancers during “We Exist” — but even they look bored. Chassagne appeared with dancing skeletons in the same space for “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus),” a new song that never unraveled, despite all that writhing.
This is a tour with surprises along the way — unexpected covers and guest artists cropping up on different stops. On Wednesday, the second of two nights, the honors went to Chicago R&B legend Mavis Staples. Her arrival was preceded with the airing of “Slippery People,” a Talking Heads song performed by the Staple Singers. When Staples showed up, the band launched into two versions of “This May Be the Last Time,” a gospel song recorded by her family band in 1954 and later, the Rolling Stones song released a decade later that borrowed the title. For the bookends — the first slow and swampy, the second a rock rave-up — Staples growled through her vocals, leading the band the entire way. “I want to go to that church,” Butler said upon her exit.
After singing the opening lines of “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads, Butler later launched into “Normal Person,” a song that used skronky guitars to get people moving. It worked. Joined by dancers wearing oversized papier-mâché heads and waving streamers, the party finally got dirty, but just as quick, it was over.