ARCADE FIRE – British Summer Time Festival
London, Hyde Park
Having rigorously toured latest album Reflektor throughout the country, including two nights at Earl’s Court – one of which was one of the most spectacular events in recent memory – and taken the biggest stage of all headlining Glastonbury, you might expect Arcade Fire’s swansong in the UK at London’s Hyde Park to be an anticlimax. If they were in any way hungover from their schedule, however, they must have a harvest of dog’s hair on their rider. In fact, such is their energy it makes you wonder what manner of drugs exist that could sustain this level of performance. And then you come to realise what Arcade Fire are actually on – each other.
Of course, that’s not to say they’re full of themselves; this band are the antithesis of arrogance. When they emerge onto a stage bedecked in foliage and mirrors, it seems like a Shakespearean troupe has landed rather than a band, each proponent part – and much of it there is – a dramatis personae that sets the scene wherein performance is everything. The personification of egalitarianism, Arcade Fire are, as befits their name, a playful inferno wherein all melds into one. It’s a curious paradox – while there are no ego-bound stage-hoggers, each proponent part is absolutely vital. As with any great performance, you’re not looking in one place – you’re looking everywhere.
And so, into the glorious sunshine they emerge, as non-descript as they are captivating – a stage full of beautiful geeks, who kick things off appropriately with Normal Person, a song which asks if anything is as strange as its titular protagonist. The stage lacks examples; a glance to the left and right offers little more in the way of context. Weirdness abounds here.
A restrained Win Butler delivers a deceptively understated opener, before segueing into the skybound rally-call of Rebellion, sparking a paroxysm of arms-aloft audience euphoria, all conducted by a bizarre, almost Shakespearean face-off betwixt Win’s brother Will (an invertebrate Caliban weaving a semaphore drumbeat) and guitarist Richard (a maniacal Puck with magical pick), who seem engaged in some sort of Tantric wrestling match. And as the colossal refrain of “Lies! Lies!” bursts from the speakers into the bluest of skies, a thousand raised arms thrust the sentiment Heavenwards.
And with prayers thus answered, into the spotlight descends sultry vixen Regine Chassagne, sporting a silver face mask and seducing the audience from the wings of the stage, delivering her Joan Of Arc vocal performance with a paradoxically garish subtlety – a siren with wiles that shrugs off her own dulcet possession. As captivating as she is coquettish, her command of the stage is as effortless as her crystalline voice. During the outro, the sun hitting her shimmering costume while she strikes a pose as if the sun were at her command, it’s easy to believe Arcade Fire have themselves a goddess – and that Joan of Arc is risen from that pesky inferno.
After which, the mantra of Rococo perfectly accompanies an encroaching sunset, its hypnotic grandeur a russet backdrop to one of the most spellbinding dusks you could witness.
“It’s easy to fall in love with London on a day like this,” Win remarks, unearthing a chorus of loved-up Londoners in total agreement. On top of which, the jocular piano-tinkle of The Suburbs instigates a jaunty sort-of knees-up, followed by the aptly titled Ready To Start – an air-raid siren of a song, Win Butler the soothsayer in eyeliner, with a foreboding riff signalling a beautiful Armageddon. The beginning of the end never sounded so good…
After which the earth really does descend – in the most spectacular way. As a stripped-back version of Tunnels flits away with elegiac grace, a hymnal Crown Of Love provides an achingly beautiful sunset soundtrack – Regine’s ethereal backing vocals almost serenading the sun to its slumber. Looking skyward, a wisp of cotton clouds chart a pilgrimage trail towards the clasp of a crescent moon, and a jealous sun bleeds itself cold with sanguine submission. Nature, apparently, is utterly in synch with The Arcade Fire – the surreal and romantic are dancing in unison.
And with the night elegantly ushered in, the disco begins – a hoard of dancers invading the stage to the strains of We Exist, a highlight from the recent album, but also a track reminiscent of another dancing king. Unapologetically sporting its Billy Jean bassline – in fact highlighting it with some Jackson-esque choreography – the band pepper the routine looking strangely sinister in their white suits, particularly the jelly-limbed Will, who seems to be remonstrating with his own personal sun god. Again, theatrics engulf the stage, a fittingly garish backdrop to a flamboyant song, but also a sprinkle of party dust on the watching throng, who are by now integral to an exhibition where no barriers exist.
Highlighting this, the ever ebullient Regine instigates a huge clap-a-thon during a colossal rendition of No Cars Go, the full complement of horns, keys and violins ascending like Orpheus’s own orchestra. After this, Regine dons her own mirror paddles for album title track Reflektor, her hands firing beams of light from the stage into the crowd, into the sky, like a neon Prometheus. She’s simply magnetic, conducting the crowd through the song’s infectious disco with luminous exuberance. Meanwhile, husband Win delivers his vocals whilst clambering atop a speaker stack – presumably to achieve some masculine altitude from such a stratospheric spouse.
A measure that aptly ushers in Mountains Beyond Mountains, Regine taking the lead once again and pretty much scaling the song’s subject matter with a lost-in-the-music incantation –tassles included – that is tantamount to Stevie Nicks and Kate Bush fighting it out about who’s weirdest. In this, I think we have a new winner… and a brand new crown princess of rock, whose power is such that her command “I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights” kills the lights on a glistening stage and shrouds all in darkness – Hyperion resurrected.
And just as you think things can’t get any more bizarre, the encore arrives, with a stage full of plastic-headed characters – bobbleheads, apparently – jiving along to The Arcade Fire’s version of Sympathy For The Devil. Surreal in the extreme, the Stones’ classic ode to Beelzebub sees a papal caricature frolicking about stage-front, adorning a fixed grin that Win sardonically soundtracks with the timeless words: “Hope you guess my name.”
As serious as they are about their music, never let it be said The Arcade Fire don’t have a sense of humour. By the end, Win’s face is a wicked grin as wide as his plastic pope.
And with a preacher-like stance, Win conducts the crowd with a spiritual version of Here Comes The Night Time, a white-suited witchdoctor with a foreboding voice that portends something is imminent (well, the night time for one). The last thing we expect is an explosion of gold and silver tickertape, but that’s what we get. And as it continues to shower shimmering confetti from the cloudless skies, the relentless Power Out plugs things back into overdrive, the band an implacable superconductor sparking off each other as shards of tape form a glistening rain around us. The sheer power of this song is in itself a demonstration of a perfect rhythm section – relentless, dangerous, and completely alluring.
Many bands have their own perennial final flourish – the Manics have A Design For Life; Embrace The Good Will Out – and Arcade Fire are pretty much anchored by a glorious, vertiginous anthem that climbs higher than every single closer that exists. As soon as the first portentous chords of Wake Up bruise the night sky, the entire world seems to lift so much closer to that crescent moon.
Three years ago, in this very park, this song was wheeled out as a second track – which felt a bit like premature ejaculation. Er, probably. But tonight, a sublime show is given the euphoric epilogue it deserves. A call to arms for the human soul, the band hurtle the “Ohhhh-ohhhh” chorus out like they’re singing it for the last time, only to have the whole of Hyde Park – which at this point feels like the whole world – scream it back even louder. It’s one of those moments that draw you closer to being human – and to everyone around you. The fact that it’s delivered by such an egalitarian troupe whose Technicolor passion for the music they produce has not diminished a single shade in all these years, makes the fervour it emanates that much more poignant, and weaves a thread of commonality and togetherness that banishes the idea of strangers and makes a park in central London feel like home.
Waving goodbye, Win Butler’s trademark sign-off suddenly seems so much more pertinent. “Take care of each other,” the frontman says, rather than your standard “Take care of yourselves”. As in his lyrics, he chooses his words meticulously – and the message isn’t lost…
After all, when music is this powerful, and this life-affirming, we are each other.
*An edited version of this review appears in Record Collector magazine
Joan Of Arc
The Suburbs (Continued)
Ready To Start
Neighbourhood 1: Tunnels
Crown Of Love
Intervention (w/ ‘Antichrist Television Blues’ outro)
No Cars Go
It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)
Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains
Sympathy For The Devil
Here Comes The Night Time
Neighbourhood 3: Power Out