In terms of acclaim, Arcade Fire are riding high right now. So far, the six-piece from Montreal - centred on the husband-and-wife team of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne - have wowed critics too numerous to mention, as well as Davids Byrne and Bowie. Byrne duetted with them live in New York, while Bowie watched, having already lavished praise on the density of sound and vision in the Fire's debut album, Funeral.
Better still, the acclaim is justified, with Funeral standing up as the finest pop album of the year. Despite its title, prompted by the deaths of several family members during its making, it's the most exhilarating, exuberant album about mortality and love's fragility; mixing the Flaming Lips' seize-the-day sensibilities, Bowie's depth of character, Talking Heads' angularity, Pulp's irrepressibility (when they had a violinist) and a staggeringly versatile, punk-rustic musicality.
Of course, this loads the Fire's first UK gig with great expectations. But they show no signs of wilting before it, with the set opener, "Wake Up", setting the pace. On album, it's a baroque, pop-operatic stomper, mixing "We Will Rock You" drums with a steroidal riff, heart-rush harmonies and an exhilarating mid-song shift into a kind of jalopying punk-Motown variation. Live, it's more gripping still, not least due to the rum spectacle of the shabbily besuited six-piece throwing their heads back and shouting in unison on the "woah-ohs" that open it. On stage-left, the multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry bashes at a marching drum and tambourine simultaneously, gives his drum stick a geeky-cool, mid-air spin and then dashes stage-right for the accordion. It's only track one and, already, you need to be on your toes to keep up.
There's always something exciting happening on stage with the Fire, and it's rooted in a marriage of multi-tasking musicianship to great vigour. The set is littered with moments that take your breath away, like the mock-finish on the propulsive, Talking Heads-styled "Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)", which segues into the "Do You Remember the First Time?"-ish, bass-driven rumble of "Rebellion (Lies)" with acute timing and judgement. Any quibbles about Butler's Byrne-meets-Jarvis Cocker holler soon become irrelevant: his winning way of singing right at the brink of his range is, clearly, the only way to keep ahead of the music's magnificent verve.
Talking of the Heads, tonight's encore includes a cover of their wistful "This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)". It's to the Fire's credit that they can flaunt the comparison to Byrne's old band without appearing the lesser band for it.
As they leave the stage with the mournful, Björk-ish "In the Backseat", only to re-emerge passing through the audience, harmonising on some elegiac "woah-ohs" over a lone drumbeat, the point is well made. The Fire are hot, all right, and they're spreading.
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- Experimental Rock (avant-rock)
- New York City
- Punk Rock
- The Flaming Lips