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Suggesting in print that Arcade Fire’s second album is less good than their first inevitably draws a vocal minority of Neon Bible nuts out of the woodwork, and so I suppose statistically there must have been a few disgruntled souls in the audience tonight. The rest of us were pretty damn ecstatic at the Montrealers’ 17-song set, which found room for seven of Funeral’s ten tracks, but only two off Neon Bible (three if you count ‘No Cars Go’, which you definitely shouldn’t, unless maybe a Hungarian military choir gets involved).
Not to unduly bash Neon Bible (which is at the very least A Good Record) but its bombastic gloom was a big departure from the ramshackle spirituality and fevered romance of Funeral; by the time Win, Regine, Win’s brother, goofy drummer guy, hot violinist gal and those other guys were wrapping up their winter area tour of 2007, things would appear to have gotten a little off message.
Clearly this comeback gig is intended to offer a spot of repositioning, and for one night it indubitably works. Is this because of the new material from upcoming third set The Suburbs? Well, it’s not not because of the new material. There are nuclear levels of goodwill flying about the Hackney Empire’s swish interior, but even so, jaws are gradually lowered as opener ‘Ready to Start’ takes enters its final bars, the choppy, handclap-driven rhythms spun into something bigger and greater by Win’s ever more impassioned howls and palpably increased amp-age from the rest of the band. Or in other words it does that thing that Arcade Fire do where the band pile on the noise and the song changes tack a bit and it sounds all brilliant and spiritual and stuff and we’re all like ‘wow’. This is not a new trick, nor is it one they exactly use sparingly across the new material – the band give such good crescendo that on a first, live listen it’s hard to really reach any firm conclusions: senses say OHGODYES, brain says BUTWILLITBETHISAWESOMEONRECORDEH? That accepted there is unquestionably a happier, more intimate feel, and there are a couple of obvious stand outs. The weirdy piano stumble of ‘The Suburbs’ sounds a bit slicker here than on record but is still a welcomely skewiff, slight unsettling diversion from all the MASSIVE SOUNDS, and the Stooges-esque (seriously) ‘Month of May’ that wraps up the main set is unfeasibly brilliant, the intensity of the band’s performance finally matched by the volume of one of their songs. More like this, plz.
It’s also followed by the allegedly po-faced singer of one of the biggest indie acts on the planet walking off the stage in the wrong direction and retracing his steps with a sheepish look on his face. And this is the thing – for tonight, stage-managed an ‘event’ thought it is, the charm, the personal touch, the intimacy are all back. They don’t start in the crowd or jazz like that, as even by the Neon Bible pre-shows that had kind of moved into the realms of gimmick. They just sweat, and move and reel and stagger and grin and run and fall over and laugh and have fun and put EFFORT in. All seven singing members of the band, stood in a line, eyes closed, going “aaaaaaah aaaaah ah” at the climax of ‘No Cars Go’ has me tearing up at a gig for the first time in far too long through, I dunno what... maybe just being overwhelmed by the band’s sheer strength of feeling? It strikes me that when they play the new material - probably because it’s new material – they do look like a band of musicians, but on older stuff – particularly Funeral vintage - they look more like a gang or a team or some sort of oddball club, charging all over the shop, mucking about staggering around. ‘Rebellion’, ‘Wake Up’, ‘Power Out’... these should be the songs that they’re bored of by now, that they’re playing for us, not for themselves, yet they look like couldn’t mean more to them.
Maybe tonight is just a lie: the next time we see Arcade Fire it won’t be in a plush Edwardian music hall, but headlining to fuck knows how many pissed up Libertines and Blink 182 fans at Reading/Leeds. We’ll know by then whether we like The Suburbs or not, and even though I can safely say these songs sound pretty great live, goodwill counts for a lot. But tonight Arcade Fire were the band we wanted them to be, and I think more importantly, they were probably the band they want themselves to be. It counts for a lot.
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