Friday, February 02, 2007

Triumph and Tribulation

Arcade Fire, Porchester Hall, 1st February 2007

Frankly, anyone wishing to instigate a premature backlash against this remarkable band really ought to think again. Of course, there's a level of anticipation for these five intimate London shows that could only come with feverish hype, and the critical consensus surrounding 'Funeral' naturally invites suspicion. Yet, whilst Arcade Fire have all the necessary indicators of a major band (a very 'big' sound, a strange mass of ideas which would be rendered chaotic by lesser groups, intriguing concepts and appealing lyrics), what really elevates them to another level entirely is the extraordinary rapport they have built with their audience. It's worth remembering that much of the buzz surrounding them came directly from the audience itself - through the internet, and word of mouth in general. I first wrote about 'Funeral' in late 2004 - it took the rest of the UK music press a good few months to notice its existence, let alone its quality.

Arriving at the venue early, and waiting for a friend, I observe the band of indie kids desperate to pick up a stray ticket by whatever means possible. The touts, however, have all been moved on by exceptionally zealous security, and the extra tickets released at 6pm appear to have already all been snapped up. Relief comes for these boys when none other than Win Butler should open the venue's backstage door. He asks me if I have a ticket, to which I reply that I do and I'm just waiting for a friend rather than loitering for a tout. We exchange friendly smiles and he moves on to the boys still waiting for what would appear to be impossible. When they say they don't have any tickets at all between them, Butler does something entirely unexpected - surreptitously beckoning them forward, he invites them through the backstage door and ushers them quickly into the venue. It's a wonderful, really quite touching moment (although these boys were admittedly very lucky to be there at the right time), and just the start of a gig these kids will surely never forget.

Opting to play gigs in grand old buildings entirely unused to hosting 11-piece grandiose rock bands does have its pitfalls of course. The sound is initially a little muddy, and it later transpires that the left hand stack of speakers has cut out completely. There are a few moments where Win and Regine particularly look a little uncomfortable with the onstage sound, and the whole affair did lack the seamless continuity of their first ever UK performance at King's College London in 2005, with a good deal more time spent on tuning and general faffing between songs.

There's also the more traditional problem of London audiences in general. It's clear from the outset that these are people who really want to be here, to the extent that they all managed to pick up tickets within two minutes of the onsale time. So why does it take so long for them to react to the extraordinary music being played? It's surely no radical surprise that these gigs are used to showcase upcoming new album 'The Neon Bible', but it really isn't until the band drop the more obvious choices from 'Funeral' towards the end of the show that things really get going. When they do, the results are revelatory. Hearing this mostly young crowd bellow back the complete lyrics to 'The Power Out' and 'Rebellion' gives further evidence that we are watching a genuinely significant rock band - one that can connect with people and inspire them in the way that The Smiths or Nirvana, whilst writing about dark and unusual subject matter. This leaves me with a troubling question at the end of the gig though: why are there no British bands achieving this right now?

All the niggles are really insubstantial though given how this band craft their sound, and how carefully they present themselves on stage. Dressed in matching uniform, constantly swapping instruments, bolstered by unconventional, driving string arrangements and French Horn, and often shouting out key lyrics in unison, this is a band every bit as exciting to watch as to hear. Of the new material, some of it chugs along reasonably predictably ('Black Mirror' particularly), albeit with a peculiarly gothic undertone and with energy and passion that elevate it above the indie conventions that underpin it. Some of the songs represent a real shift of emphasis, though. 'My Body Is A Cage' is outstanding, and with a hint of genuine soul that could have come directly from a James Carr or Percy Sledge. Unbelievably, 'The Well and The Lighthouse' succeeds in amplifying the more grandiose elements of the band's sound and there's even one song (possibly 'Antichrist Television Blues'?) that closely resembles Bruce Springsteen in full E Street Band pomp. No bad thing!

They squeeze in a handful of classics to keep people happy, in spite of turning down numerous requests for 'Tunnels'. There's a compelling rendition of 'Haiti', with Regine at her most theatrical and plenty of drum-thumping. Playing 'Cold Wind' (a limited edition single and the band's contribution to Six Feet Under) is a nice touch, and provides an ocean of subtlety amidst the thunderous clamour of much of the rest of the set. The medley of 'The Power Out' and 'Rebellion (Lies)', with Win Butler bursting into the crowd is simply electrifying.

They save the best for last though. After finishing with a typically intense new song, they process offstage with their instruments (including a giant upright bass), and a few minutes later emerge in the venue foyer, leading the crowd in an entirely acoustic rendition of 'Wake Up' (according to the NME, Butler had to scuffle with security to get this to happen, but I didn't manage to see this). The band then snake their way up the stairs and back into the hall whilst performing. We quickly follow them, and end up standing two feet away as they perform an acoustic take on The Clash's 'Guns Of Brixton' in the middle of the venue floor. It's a fascinating extension of the trick they developed in their early live shows, and there are very few other bands with the courage to really make something of their encores in this way.

It's rare to see a band so artistically successful, and so uncompromising in executing their ideas that are also so obviously unashamed to treat their audience to something special, and to make sure they go home satisfied. By descending literally to the same level as the crowd, the band emphasise the special relationship between themselves and their ardent followers. 'The Neon Bible' may or may not equal the achievement of its predecessor, but it promises to be at the very least a damn good album, and there's every sense now that this band can transcend temporal admiration to the next level - they may well turn out to be the key rock band of this time.

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