Canada's finest contemporary export confront commercial bugbears on sold out arena tour
So, Arcade Fire got massive, and a reputation for being rather grumpily disaffected by commercial success. It was with thoughts of their early secretive gatherings in London churches and frontman Win Butler’s tantrums on the Jonathan Ross show earlier this year that I entered the aircraft hangar that is Newcastle Metro Arena. Imagining the venue rammed with multitudes of post-gender pubescents squawking over their latest badly-dressed NME band of preference, I silently prayed that Arcade Fire and audience alike would instead be imparting some of that communal musical warmth that the band specialises in; that same respectably glorious symphonic mayhem that catapulted Arcade Fire from astronomical yet underpromoted independent label success with ‘Funeral’ in 2005, to mainstream art-rock phenomenon with ‘Neon Bible’ in 2007.
The warehouse was replete with edgy expectancy and a pleasingly diverse demographic (everyone from weird indie-geek girl to her leather jacket-sporting granddad) when Arcade Fire – ten of them – crept onto the instrument infested stage to the televised hysteria of a screeching black evangelist, a rather apt pre-emption of the mood on the floor. Openers ‘No Cars Go’ and ‘Keep the Car Running’ were flawlessly executed; anticipation in the crowd turned to outright joy, the kind Christmas day brought when Santa existed. All eyes were on the towering stature of Butler, all 6’5’’ of him, centre stage, his Canadian troubadours gathered about and his wife, Regine Chassagne, prancing about in a lime green silk dress, arms outstretched and tambourine rattling.
Band members interchanged instruments with alarming frequency as they slipped into slow-tempo reverie mid-set, including an early EP fronted by Chassagne, ‘Sleeping in a Submarine’, and the encompassing ethereality of ‘In the Backseat’. Butler then introduced a cover of the Smiths’ ‘Still Ill’ as ‘a song that made me want to play music’. It seemed particularly relevant in the aftermath of the singer’s recent successive bouts of illness that resulted in the cancellation of Arcade Fire’s European tour last spring.
The passive awe of the crowd was entirely dispelled as the end of the set heralded a rousing host of first album favourites including ‘Neighbourhood no.3 (Power Out)’, ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ and the delightfully predictable encore, ‘Wake Up’, that had the standing throngs clutching at each others’ sweaty shoulders in a wordless chorus of noisy adulation.
The best part was that Arcade Fire didn’t look disillusioned by success in the slightest – to the contrary there was an overwhelming sense of reciprocated energy about the whole set. Butler propelled himself into the audience on several occasions, seemingly thriving on the staggering turn out of fans and their messily enthusiastic appreciation of the music. There was no pretence of the elitism, musical snobbery or anti-commercialism that currently dominates Arcade Fire commentary. This was ‘just a bunch of musicians from Montreal, Canada,’ as Butler put it, sharing their music with tens of thousands of fans in a sold-out arena tour, and loving it.