Bill Cummings 30/10/2007
There's no doubt about it: Cardiff's International Arena is an appalling music venue, a cavernous aircraft hanger. The sound is abysmal, the beer is over-priced and it's full of quite a few disinterested idiots who see the gig as a good excuse to get tanked up and trample on people - the whole experience often swamps good bands. Take support act Clinic, for example: in a more intimate environment their twisting, grimy art rock is challenging and enjoyable, but here even their best songs sound forgettable and drowned out. Not even their large top hats can save them from an apathetic audience still filing in.
Canadian seven (or eleven on tour) piece The Arcade Fire are, however, a different prospect. 2005's Funeral was a wake up call to the music scene: brimming with unstoppable tunes, vast arrangements and heartfelt sentiments, it was brave music for the heart and the head. Something communal and untold, yet personal and telling, it placed the band at the forefront of a North American and Canadian music scene that was producing alternative music of the highest quality. Whilst the subtle darkness of latest album The Neon Bible took a hard trip into the heart of a right wing America on the verge of collapse, on stage the mix of old and new material still burns brighter than any other band on the planet right now.
They're the first band I've ever seen who can actually fill this horrendous place - not just with a sell-out crowd, but with a sound so epic it forms an unstoppable hurricane of rhythms and instruments sweeping up the entire venue. It's impossible to pigeonhole their unique mini-orchestra, but amidst the bricolage of folk, pop, country and baroque sounds they hint at the swirling art rock of the Velvet Underground, the dark melodies of early Echo and the Bunnymen, and the emotive, political power of prime time Bruce Springsteen. But, most of all, The Arcade Fire burn with their own energy on stage. Pure, unstoppable energy, quite at odds with many stuck-in-the-mud bands of the moment: each member throws themselves into every note; each chanted phrase is an experience to be savoured and explored. Amidst it all is conductor and chief Win Butler, the leader of the charge, with his distinctive juddering vocals managing to somehow cut their way through the bold lushness of the instrumentals and the bombast of the percussion to veer straight towards your solar plexus.
Picture the scene: a long red curtain is draped around the back of the stage, at its centre are three large organs and a light show of projections, the band and various instruments are flanked by six neon pylons. As stage dressings go, this is impressive. The big church organs of opener “Ocean Of Noise” give way to the undulating lullaby of “The Well and the Lighthouse”, its vigorous twinkling rhythm section bristling with violins, guitars, keys and Win and Régine's husband-and-wife dual vocals, holding hands and burrowing deep into the night sky. Then there's a shift as Régine takes the lead in a step change, one that again exhibits the band's endless diversity: one song passes me by in a blur, a little disjointed to what's gone before, but with her second turn a more intricate, folksy sound gives way to some graceful violins and vocals almost reminiscent of Kate Bush.
Win takes to an organ high on the left hand side of the stage and begins to key out something vaguely recognisable - a cover of the Violent Femmes' “Kiss Off” completed by the full Arcade Fire group experience. The songs keep coming at breakneck pace, and although I want to find the bar as I'm dripping with sweat and my limbs ache, virtually every song is an unmissable epiphany. The hypnotic hoedown “Keep the Car Running” resembles the meeting point between Talking Heads' “Once in a Lifetime” and Bruce Springsteen's “Born to Run.” It's just marvellous: the rushing rhythms and foreboding vocals give way and swirl as the pre-chorus peaks, “When it's coming/ Oh! When it's coming…” It feels like a promise from band to audience, sweeping you off your feet and off through deserts and oceans towards the edge of the world. Then there's the whirring beats of last UK single “No Cars Go” with its repeating, stabbing violins, keyboards, and crazy brass; knowing communal vocals (“Hey! Us kids know…”) are intersected by yelps and a real sense of charging purpose - the crowd erupts upon its first note. One suspects that this might be the only song from tonight's set that some here are aware of. I pity the MTV2 generation.
“Power Out” is a riot of propulsive thumps and frenetic melodies; at one point William Butler takes to the high PA speakers on the left hand side of the stage and hammers on a drum, whipping up the crowd into more bouts of spasmodic grinning. Next up is “Rebellion (Lies)”, still one of the best songs of the last few years, building insatiable rhythms (piano, violins, violas, cellos, double bass, xylophones, keyboards, French horns, hurdy gurdy, harp, mandolin and the kitchen sink) while its euphoric, almost Beach Boys-esque, harmonic lines drill there way into your head and have you jumping up and down on the spot and singing “every time you close your eyes!” at the top of your lungs.
Before the first encore Win informs us that an amount from this tour will go towards a healthcare charity in their homeland; it's the gig that keeps on giving! Grandiose organs usher in the pleading “Intervention” and it sounds cavernous and impassioned, every line delivered with an unwavering conviction conjuring up images of war and death (“been working for the church while your life falls apart”); a song with a real social conscience in times of great uncertainty, it sounds genuinely poignant. Final encore “Wake Up” is the highlight: a fully communal experience, wave after wave of hands, arms and legs thrust out, singing back the main choral lines “oooooooh-oooooh-ooooh-ooooh-oooh-ooh”, the verses punctuated by buzzing guitar chords and Win's pleading vocals a call to arms, like a cinematic snapshot of a world from above where we're all just ants and the circle of life goes round and round… “If the children don't grow up/Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up/We're just a million little gods causin' rain storms turnin' every good thing to rust.” And with that the band leaves to a rapturous reception.
This was my gig of the year so far: cathartic, awe inspiring and heartfelt, a truly mind blowing live experience. The Arcade Fire are no longer an underground phenomenon, now they are a band for the people. They have their finger firmly on the zeitgeist and they aren't about to let go.
Ocean Of Noise
Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)
The Well & The Lighthouse
In The Backseat
Kiss Off (Violent Femmes Cover)
Neighbourhood #2 Laika
Keep The Car Running
(Antichrist Television Blues)
No Cars Go
Neighbourhood #3 Power Out