Arcade Fire end the second night of their Wembley Arena run with a traditional New Orleans-style second line parade. Joined by that city’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band, they perform David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel while making their way through the crowd.
As with everything tonight, the experience is vividly captured on camera and projected onto the four giant screens above each side of the stage. But what’s most striking about this footage isn’t how immediate it feels, it’s the joy it captures. The audience aren’t just singing along and taking pictures. Some are outright grinning, others are clearly overwhelmed, most are reaching out to pat the passing musicians on the back.
In those five minutes alone, Arcade Fire make a more powerful statement about music (it’s not just a commodity) than they achieved across the 13 tracks of most recent release Everything Now. The album and promotional campaign tackled other issues too, from the always-on look-at-me media landscape to the insidious power of corporations (oh, hello, Facebook); in the live show the Big Themes take a back seat.
During intermission there are a few fake TV adverts (for ‘Electric Blue’ eye drops and ‘Creature Comforts’ cereal) and an intentionally heavy handed reminder to buy souvenirs. An opening gambit sees the band enter as if they’re the fighters at a pay-per-view boxing match. But as soon as Arcade Fire reach the stage at the centre of the arena floor, they’re all about the music.
Sure, there’s a spectacle to seeing musicians performing in the round, constantly moving to cover all four fronts (or, in the case of Jeremy Gara, have their drum kit on a rotating platform). There’s a beauty to the venue being lit up by mobile phones during a triumphant rendition of the ballad Ocean Of Noise.
There’s a rush to following Will Butler pound a drum during Rebellion (Lies) as he leaps onto platforms or bounces off the ropes that initially enclose the stage like a boxing ring. There’s wonderment at Régine Chassagne’s dazzling gold-sequined disco diva transformation during a big-groove makeover of Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) complete with mirror ball and her ribbon dancing.
There’s astonishment at the ease with which they slip between the more traditional indie-rock approach of early albums Funeral and Neon Bible and the electronic sounds they’ve been exploring since 2013’s Reflektor. There’s even a sense of marvel to watching them nonchalantly swap between instruments mid-song.
But most of all there’s the knock-out punch that comes from hearing (and seeing in extreme close-up on the big screens) nine supremely talented musicians playing as one. It happens over and over again.
Ready To Start, Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels), No Cars Go, and Wake Up are unstoppable. Over a muscular groove laid down by multi-instrumentalists Richard Reed Parry and Tim Kingsbury, Sarah Neufeld adds violin, Stuart Bogie brings the brass, Tiwill Duprate plays percussion, Chassagne handles everything from glockenspiel to extra drums, and frontman Win Butler plays guitar as earnestly as he sings.
Frankly, it’s difficult to keep track of what’s happening on stage (somebody somewhere up there is usually playing something other than you thought they were), but the results are exhibit A in the case for live music’s life-altering impact.
So is their singalong rendition of Jarvis Cocker’s on-message Running The World, flamboyantly sung by the Pulp frontman himself. A hidden track on his debut solo album released over 10 years ago, the disturbingly topical song is given the exposure it demands and must have turned at least one punter on to Cocker’s work.
The same must be true for Creature Comfort. Any Arcade Fire “purists” who’d ignored the latest LP can only have been won over by the electro duet. All synths, New Order vibes, insatiable beats, and the contrasting voices of Butler and Chassagne, it’s the most welcome surprise of the night, and the perfect appetiser for Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out). Given a slight 2018 makeover, the aggressive rocker from their debut album is now the perfect bridge between the old and the new, and a big, intense finish to the main set.
As the sweaty, but clearly ecstatic, band leave the stage, the screens show smiles on their faces almost as wide as those later seen beaming back during Rebel Rebel. Almost.
Review of Arcade Fire @ Wembley Arena by Nils van der Linden. Photography by Paul Lyme.