Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Death Becomes Them

The Arcade Fire, King's College Student Union, 8th March 2005

I don’t normally go in for hyperbole, but this really was something quite special. Besides, I got there before the NME anyway. The anticipation for The Arcade Fire’s first gig outside North America had reached feverish levels seemingly entirely by word of mouth (and the web), the gig having comfortably sold out before the NME fell into rapture over the wonderful ‘Funeral’ album. There were several important people in the audience, including Steve Lamacq and XFM’s John Kennedy and also, so I’m reliably informed, Bjork. These people are not the nation’s tastemakers for nothing – and in this case, they should be lauded for lending their support to this remarkable band.

If anything, The Arcade Fire are a more invigorating and distinctive prospect live than on record. From the word go, they are a band that manage to appear intensely serious (or maybe seriously intense?) about their work, but also thrillingly entertaining. Whilst much of this is down to how they look on stage (they all look slightly odd and are dressed in dark suits), the music and the performance are even more captivating. They open with ‘Wake Up’, one of the more immediate songs on ‘Funeral’, its insistent one chord attack giving way to an entirely unpredictable change of pace and feel. With all six members of the band singing loudly in unison, it delivers a palpable sense of drama and occasion that immediately marks this band out for larger territories than student union bars.

From the outset, this is a set that, while necessarily mostly drawing on the immediately familiar material from ‘Funeral’, remains engaging and unpredictable, full of unexpected twists and turns. These twists take various guises, from the carefully plotted merging of two of their most rhythmically insistent tracks (‘The Power Out’ and ‘Rebellion (Lies)’), to the fearless instrument swapping, sometimes mid-song. There is a vast plethora of instruments on stage, from the conventional guitars-bass-keyboards-drums set up to the more unusual varieties of percussion (glockenspiel and steel drum) and accordion. They utilise these instruments ingeniously, so that the gig is as much a visual spectacle as an astonishing display of musical invention (witness one member wearing a motorcycle helmet and then proceeding to hit it repeatedly, before moving to the side of the stage to give the PA stack a good beating). The sound has remarkable clarity for a basic bar venue, and every detail is clearly audible. Whilst ‘Funeral’ may have resulted from the deaths of several family members during writing and recording, its songs are also unfashionably romantic, and are essentially thrilling escapist dreams that translate brilliantly to live performance.

The band seem genuinely overwhelmed by the warm reception – and the banter does not extend much beyond slightly uncomfortable thank yous. No big problem, however, as they save the best for last. After their elegant, mysterious rendition of Talking Heads’ ‘This Must Be The Place’ (David Byrne joined them onstage in New York earlier this year) and a final, elaborate and highly theatrical delivery of album closer ‘In The Backseat’ (where the lead vocals are delivered with dramatic precision by Regine Chassagne), the band appear to disappear from the stage, but beating drums and ghostly voices are still clearly audible. The realisation suddenly dawns that the band themselves are snaking through the crowd – a quite brilliant ending to a wonderful performance. No matter how seriously they may take themselves, or indeed how intensely worshipped they may be by the music press, this is clearly not a band that intends to neglect its audience. Whether they will be able to repeat this trick when they play the larger Astoria Theatre in June remains to be seen – but either way, that is a gig which those not lucky enough to grab a ticket for this show simply must attend.

A whole batch of album reviews to follow soon....

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