Peter Ormerod reviews Arcade Fire at the Genting Arena, Birmingham
Arena rock. It's one of the most dread phrases in the lexicon of popular music. The connotations are legion and unpleasant: hollow, corporate, bombastic, sanitised, homogenised. It's the term increasingly applied to Arcade Fire, on the not unreasonable grounds they they are a rock band who play arenas. But the good news is that, on this evidence, they may be the saviours of the genre.
Surrounding this tour and the release of the 2017 album Everything Now is a wide-ranging conceit intended to satirise the tawdry commercial machine driving contemporary culture. Some will no doubt find irony in the fact that a band signed to Sony and selling tickets for £55 a pop are trying to position themselves as outsiders and mere onlookers, while others may sigh at the array of pretend adverts and general sense of information overload evoked before the show; it's basically what U2 were doing 25 years ago. The good news though is that this all done away with pretty much the moment the band step in to the venue.
They do in a manner showing their ascent to their lofty status has come at no cost to their idiosyncratic and oddball charm. This tour is presented in the round, with the stage at the centre of the auditorium and resembling, at least at first, a boxing ring. The band stride in through the crowd ,big-fight style, while an announcer declares their various achievements and accolades. It's amusing and endearing, self-mocking without being overly self-conscious. They clamber over the ropes, band member Regine Chassagne rings a bell, and there begins a set which shows why they've got to where they've got to.
Proceedings start with Everything Now, which came out last year but already feels like it's existed forever. The keyboard riff soars, but with a tinge of melancholy; it's Arcade Fire summed up in 22 notes. The song is anthemic in the best way, big-hearted arms-aloft singalong material with wit and bite and imagination. It's hard to imagine anything they subsequently come up with bettering it as set-opener. Indeed, one the features of the night is just how good the most recent songs sound: last year's album, also called Everything Now, was treated with derision by many critics, which seems appallingly unfair for a record containing songs like the exquisitely shimmering Electric Blue, the driving and desperate Put Your Money on Me and the pulverising and snarling Creature Comfort, which are all among the highlights of the night.
Not that there's any shortage of treats for fans of their earlier material. From their 2004 debut album Funeral, the pounding Rebellion (Lies) gets a suitably shouty airing two songs in, Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) has retained all its urgent longing and Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) closes the main set in suitably cataclysmic style. The tender yet eerie title track from 2007's Neon Bible is a smartphone-light moment, while The Suburbs, from the 2010 album of the same name, blends the jaunty with the keening. Rococo is elegantly malevolent, while Ready to Start has a nagging, jittery grandeur; all are met with wild acclaim from the crowd.
But the key track tonight, and arguably one of the most significant their career, is Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains). It's astonishing now to consider that some regarded this as a misstep when it released on The Suburbs. Blending the infectiousness of Blondie's Heart of Glass with a sense of euphoric defiance, it was their first properly 'danceable' song and led the way to the deeper, darker grooves of their 2013 album Reflektor. Tonight, Regine, sounding better than ever, belts it out in utterly thrilling fashion, waving streamers about with abandon and bringing smiles to every face. Fittingly, it's followed by Reflektor's title track, a little impaired by some sound problems but still an epic beast of a song. The show is brought to an end with the deafening 'aaah-aaahh's of Wake Up, the musicians augmented by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, a good-time New Orleans jazz ensemble who gave a hugely likeable turn as support act. Arcade Fire make their exit through the crowd, the arena shaking with unaccompanied singing, the echo of which is probably still resounding.
Arcade Fire have come a long way as a live band. They have always been a captivating spectacle: so many musicians, doing so much all the time, yet creating this coherent, luminous sound. They have always possessed a manic energy; and despite not being a band of musos, they're almost embarrassingly gifted, able to swap instruments seemingly at will. But since Reflektor, they have added new dimensions of colour and sound; less neurotic and earnest and more, well, fun. Win Butler has never looked more at ease as a frontman, Regine has never been more captivating a stage presence, the band have never sounded better. They may have had only one top 20 hit in the UK since 2005, but they plainly belong on this stage. The show is conceived brilliantly for venues like this, too, with no one feeling removed from the action and visuals to rival those of any band.
To hell with the stereotypes. If anyone can give arena rock a good name, it's Arcade Fire.
Arcade Fire played the following:
Here Comes the Night Time
No Cars Go
Put Your Money on Me
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
The Suburbs (Continued)
Ready to Start (Damien Taylor Remix outro)
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) (with 'I Give You Power' snippet)
We Don't Deserve Love
Everything Now (Continued) (with Preservation Hall Jazz Band)
Wake Up (with Preservation Hall Jazz Band)
Wake Up Chorus (with Preservation Hall Jazz Band)
* The show took place on Sunday April 15. Visit www.everythingnow.com for future tour dates.