Arcade Fire, Hackney Empire, London
Friday 09 July 2010
It's now three years since Neon Bible secured Arcade Fire's ascension to the ranks of those indie acts whose questing spirit is matched by commercial success, and not surprisingly there's a palpable sense of excited expectation buzzing around the Hackney Empire before tonight's one-off show. This is their only scheduled UK performance until festival appearances planned for late in August, so when the eight-piece band bounces animatedly onstage, brimful of energy as a hydro-electric dam, it's no surprise the audience greets them as conquering heroes, rising as one for a standing ovation before they've even played a note.
The crowd stays risen throughout the show, greeting the opening number "Ready to Start" like an old favourite, even though it's a brand-new track from their forthcoming album. The Suburbs. But it undoubtedly sounds like a favourite, continuing the thrumming, pounding manner of many Neon Bible songs. It's some measure of the band's confidence in their new material that they can follow it up with another track from The Suburbs, "Modern Man", with no discernible diminution of audience acclaim – and again, there's a comforting familiarity about the song, which extends the last album's troubled air of unease, Win Butler once more litmus-testing the zeitgeist, watchful for whatever it is that "makes me feel like something don't feel right".
As at previous appearances, the stage is a blur of activity, with players shuttling back and forth between instruments on two levels, doubling-up on two drumkits and phalanxes of keyboards, guitars and violins as each song demands, bouncing and dancing around like initiates of some dervish or shaker cult swept up in the roiling barrage of sound. Tall and preppy in appearance, Butler occupies the eye of this whirlwind like David Byrne at the heart of Talking Heads' blue-eyed funk, while Régine Chassagne darts about like Tinkerbell from drums to violin to accordion, her sparkly yellow party frock giving the impression of some fairy doll liberated from a toy-box by moonlit magic. Sadly, the hurdy-gurdies from the Neon Bible shows have gone, replaced by the more quotidian likes of piano and electric 12-string for new songs such as "Suburban War" and "Rococo"; but the sheer depth of sound has been retained, its impact pulsing around the hall.
Behind the band, a backdrop of a freeway bridge is fronted by a big screen in the guise of a roadside billboard, offering a series of oblique references to the songs. When clapping hands appear onscreen during "Modern Man", the crowd quickly follows suit; but there's really no need for prompting, as the more familiar songs are treated as community singalongs anyway, belted out with anthemic gusto. The mere display of organ pipework on the screen is enough to rouse a mighty cheer for "Intervention", the audience bawling out the lines about how "every spark of friendship and love will die" as if it were the antibody to some feel-good charity single. And when the mighty "No Cars Go" arrives – drily introduced by Butler as "Yes Boats Yes" – the exclamatory interjections of "Hey!" barked from a thousand throats take on the scary character of cries of assent at a political rally. Which actually doesn't seem at all out of place on an occasion as rousingly triumphalist as this.
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