We come to praise them:
Arcade Fire, Brixton Academy, Saturday March 17, 2007
Never seen them live before, so this was something of a pilgrimage for me. (I piped Neon Bible into my head on the train journey there, and Funeral on the train journey home. It was an Arcade Fire theme night, when nothing less would do.) I knew in my bones, and from what I’ve read, that it would be a semi-religious experience, and when I saw the huge church organ onstage, reassurance set in. “Look at that organ and shit,” exclaimed an eloquent young student standing behind me. The age range was broader than I expected. Gender mix fairly even. A lot of people in glasses. I went on my own, which added to the sense of awe. I found myself in glorious isolation, but at the same time part of a congregation of other believers. This was Arcade Fire’s fourth night at Brixton. That’s a lot of worship. The last band I saw at Brixton were Kasabian – also a night of hands in the air and bowing down, but one laced with flying beer. I only saw beer fly twice tonight, and both liquid explosions occured during the encore, as if idiots could contain their excitement no longer. At least they’re idiots who love Arcade Fire. Reading down the official forums at Us Kids Know, it seems that those hardcore fans who were down the front experienced some aggressive mosh action, and not all of it nice, which strikes me as disrespectful in a church. Where I was standing, just in front of and to the left of the mixing desk, it was all polite jigging on the spot and Radio Ga Ga-style handclaps. I allowed myself to get sucked into a maelstrom of bodies at the last Arctic Monkeys Brixton gig, but a) it was unavoidable, and b) it was apt, even for a gentleman of my years. Tonight was not about bashing around.
Neon Bible currently sits at number two in the UK album charts, behind the Kaiser Chiefs’ Yours Truly, Angry Mob, which I like very much, but is not in the same league in terms of cosmic wonder and apocalyptic beauty. (Arcade Fire turn us all into Paul Morley. Which is a very Paul Morley thing to write.) It also sits at number two in the Billboard album charts, behind Notorious BIG’s Greatest Hits, so perhaps an album about death (“working for the church while your family dies”) can never beat an album propelled by death. It will still be one of the Albums Of The Year in nine months’ time. It might well stay in the charts for the whole of that time. It is an album for our time. It speaks, bravely, of rising seas and falling bombs, when so few albums do. If Arcade Fire had simply presented this album, in order, live, from one end to the other, we would have thanked them kindly. As it was, they mixed it up, beginning with Keep The Car Running and following it with No Cars Go, perhaps the most commercial tracks. Neon Bible itself was absent. They also dropped in Haiti from Funeral early on, but kept back most of the crowd-pleasers from the that album for the back end of the set and the encores (Power Out was astonishing, and straight into Rebellion/Lies, my favourite – no Crown Of Love, until I was on the train platform). There were nine people onstage, swapping places and instruments throughout. I only really know the names of Win Butler, who said little, but seemed sincere and friendly when he broke silence, and Regine Chassagne, who seemed to be everywhere, but the ginger fella (Richard Reed Parry, I think) was full of beans, as was the one I now understand to be Win’s brother Will, if he was the one who threw the drum in the air. I am a fan of their music rather than the kind who remembers all their names, but tonight’s experience made me want to know them better.
What I love about their music is its expansive nature, the way it fills every corner of the room, a cacophony without pain. There’s so much going on. But rather than a funereal experience – and the subject matter is hardly a laugh a minute – Arcade Fire are a celebratory experience live. They may well be singing about the power being out in the heart of man and a great black wave in the middle of the sea but they do so with a unifying melancholy joy. We’re all in this together, after all. Singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart, indeed.
I must say I’ve seen some pretty spectacular gigs at Brixton over the last couple of years – Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian, Bauhaus, Goldfrapp – but this was in a class of its own. I’m glad I waited until I knew my way around the album before I saw them. There’s a really sweet post on the forums from a girl who queued from four in the afternoon to get one of the 50 extra tickets released on the day of the gig, the only caveat to which was that you had to remain inside the venue once you’d got your ticket. She ended up being given an after-show by a kindly security guard who recognised her from the queue and she describes her awe at seeing Win Butler up close. “Win is massive,” she writes, presumably still experiencing the afterglow. “He’s so tall and beautiful and has these amazing eyes. When he looks at you, even if it is for a tiny second, you feel a bit as if you were naked, or, like, crying.” (I have punctuated that for her and put in some capital letters.)
Oh, and they did a well-intentioned but oddly underwhelming unplugged rendition of Guns Of Brixton, with Butler on megaphone. It’s already on YouTube, naturally, although I make no claims for the quality of either recording or performance. Anyone remember a time when the technology wasn’t available for this to happen, and you weren’t allowd to take cameras into gigs?