Arcade Fire have overcome many obstacles in their path over the years. Grabbing the attention of the world through their indie-released debut LP Funeral; delivering credible follow ups to one of the decade’s most critically acclaimed albums, and then dealing with inevitable backlashes.
“Are Arcade Fire their own worst enemy?” asked the New York Times last year after an ill-judged marketing campaign that annoyed just about everybody it came into contact with, (even if there were some cute give-away promotional cereal boxes) followed by a dress code request for a New York show that asked concert goers to refrain from wearing flip flops and shorts.
(Frankly, you have to have some sympathy for that: one has to draw the line somewhere, right?)
More recently they have had to deal with snarky Pitchfork reviews of some of the clunkier moments of their new album.
But perhaps they met, and conquered, their biggest challenge last night.
How to make the audience forget what a terrible venue the SSE Arena, Wembley is.
The former Wembley Arena / Empire Pool is truly one of the UK’s most terrible hell-holes. Narrow corridors, not enough entrances, horrendous queues for toilets, people treated like cattle, wine served in plastic glasses that you unseal like a milk carton, all served by tube lines that routinely close for planned and unplanned maintenance: the list of heinous crimes is endless.
When Arcade Fire played at The Roundhouse for the Reflektor Tour they asked people to dress up. At the SSE Arena, we get an email the day before telling us Arcade Fire specifically requested we don’t bring bags with us for security reasons and to cut down queues.
Yeah, right. Of course they did.
But as Beethoven’s Fifth rings out across the boxing ring styled stage, and faux fight-commentary rings around the arena as the band make their entrance through the audience onto the stage in the middle of the floor, you realise Arcade Fire have already made this most impersonal of venues almost intimate. Seats that would normally be miles back have a grandstand view.
The band – as they so often do – getting amongst the crowd. It’s an impressive trick, and that bringing down of the barrier between performer and audience is something Arcade Fire have absolutely nailed.
“Everything Now” and “Rebellion (Lies)” – a mix of new and old – is a compelling opening. Not every band can play two songs that leave you thinking you could leave there and then and still have had your money’s worth. Fewer still can then improve on it…
The stage revolves at its centre, surrounded by boxing ring ropes. The band seem caged in, but then the ropes are released, and all nine on stage are having a whale of a time up there, all flailing arms, dancing and moving. It’s another simple but dramatic detail.
I won’t spoil the rest of the show by revealing everything that happens, suffice to say the light show compliments the music expertly, especially on songs like “My Body is a Cage”, dancers infiltrate the audience along with members of the band (tip: stand underneath a glitter ball), and it’ll be no secret to reveal Regine Chassagne remains a kind of magical electric fairie in electric blue, flitting between being a disco queen (“Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”) one of life’s very few rock-star-slash-accordion-players and a demon second drummer adding splashes of drama wherever she goes.
Seven songs in and Chrissie Hynde jumps onstage for a terrific “Don’t Get Me Wrong”.
It says much about the show that I had almost forgotten that particular highlight until Hynde came back onstage towards the end.
Three songs from The Suburbs remind us what a strong album that was. Meanwhile in a live setting the new songs also shine. Shorn of the weaker elements on the album, songs such as “Electric Blue”, “Put Your Money On Me”, “Creature Comfort” confirm their quality. “We Don’t Deserve Love” is surprisingly effective, sung by Win Butler on one of his several trips into the crowd.
All that’s left is to keep the party going, not difficult when you have Arcade Fire’s songs.
“Reflektor” is a hammer blow. Such a tune, one that featured Bowie, no less, on backing vocals, and which turns this most unlovely venue into an all-singing, all-dancing church of indie rock. Indeed, most Arcade Fire shows feel like you are going to church, only a church with better tunes, better clothes, more mirror balls and fewer similes about flocks and shepherds.
Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out) follows, with lines from “I Give You Power” sneaking in, before “Wake Up” draws everything to a breathless close, with Hynde, opening act the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and The National’s Bryce Dessner all joining in the fun, with the final retreat offstage resembling a Live and Let Die style New Orleans funeral parade.
Arcade Fire remain a killer live act, and this latest show is as strong a show as I have witnessed from them.
Even at the SSE Arena, Wembley…
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