We've had a bizarre couple of years when it comes to unlikely events coming to pass. Naturally, Brexit and Trump immediately spring to mind, defying the odds and catching many of us by surprise. The difference is that there was always a possibility of them happening, no matter how small. Arcade Fire playing a gig in Scunthorpe, however, seemed the furthest thing from possible when I first heard about it. One of the biggest bands on the planet, who are headlining half of this year's major festivals, playing to an intimate crowd in a downtrodden little industrial town in a forgotten corner of the country. It sounded like either a cruel joke or something from The Twilight Zone, but somehow it was neither of those things. I'm not sure what witchcraft the folks at The Baths Hall have been dabbling in, but it resulted in one of the most unique and noteworthy gigs of the year.
Having announced their upcoming fifth album Everything Now just a few days prior, and with it being the first UK date of their latest tour, the Scunny crowd made the perfect guinea pigs for both the band's new material and their new stage dynamics. Never one to do things by halves, Arcade Fire have embraced the idea of performing in the round, surrounded by the audience on all sides. The layout, with the vast array of instruments radiating outwards on the central square and with speakers and spotlights hanging overhead, was eye-catching and made great use of the noticeably limited space; it made the already tiny crowd that bit smaller. Even those at the very “back” were a lot closer to the band than you would likely experience at a normal gig for an act of this calibre (unless of course you bolted for the barrier at your first opportunity, or passive-aggressively elbowed your way forward over the course of the evening).
Performing in the round did have its faults however. The roadies were all forced to lurk behind the barriers for whenever they were next needed. The band themselves joked at the end of their set about how they couldn't cling to the age-old cliché of walking offstage before an encore when they were mobbed on all sides, while songs also required extra little instrumental interludes to give the band time to change positions. The band members did, however, make a point of visiting each of the four sides over the course of the evening, even if they often didn't hang around for long. Win Butler in particular mainly kept to one corner, meaning those on the opposite side could probably have counted on one hand the number of times they'd actually seen him. There are a few bugs to work out in their set-up, but this time around I got the distinct impression that nothing could truly damper the thrill of this particular experience.
The two tracks from the new album that found their way into the setlist point to a record that looks likely to be eclectic even by their standards. 'Creature Comfort' brings together a heavy stomping beat, bright and cheerful synths, and dark stream-of-consciousness-style lyrics. None of which would appear compatible on paper, but in practice it seems set to be a future fan favourite. 'Signs Of Life', which saw it's live debut in the encore, takes a Talking Heads inspired sound and kicks it up a notch with a whole heap of funk. It feels like a natural progression from the sound they explored with Reflektor.
'Reflektor' itself was the first big thrill of the night, as the stage went black and one by one phones slowly rose into the air until the entire hall was bathed in a light show of the audience's own making. Knock the overabundance of phones at gigs to your heart's content (as any self-respecting music nerd is wont to do) but they occasionally have their moments. Even this gorgeous experience though was soon surpassed with a stripped back rendition of 'Wake Up', the band performing acoustically and relying on us to sing. You think of audience participation as something more suited to big crowds; the more voices the better. Here, however, it just seemed right, and it felt more akin to being part of the band than being part of some vast, writhing crowd. The atmosphere was simply unlike any other live music event I have ever experienced, and unless The Rolling Stones decide to play my village hall or something daft along those lines, I doubt it's something I'll ever know again.
I made a point of picking up a shirt at the merch stand just to have proof that it wasn't all just some fever dream. The night was spoken of in hushed tones, as though bringing up the exhilarating absurdity of it would somehow break the spell. Everyone, however, said the same thing, that it was the best gig they had ever been to. Win Butler managed to utter the words “Hello Scunthorpe!” without ripping a hole in the fabric of reality, and in the process brought some much-cherished colour to this forgotten little industrial town on an otherwise dull and dreary day.