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Live Review: Arcade Fire

Hyde Park, London, June 30th

Video: Arcade Fire Backstage At Hyde Park 2011

I do have a once-a-year drunken morning where I’m like, ‘What am I doing with my life? I could own a house by now!’” Four years ago, Owen Pallett stopped touring with [a]Arcade Fire[/a] to concentrate on his own thing: the superlative but commercially less successful Final Fantasy. Today, he’s doing his solo stuff at the bottom of his old band’s Hyde Park bill. “But to answer your question – no, there’s no twinge of jealousy. I feel more like a proud parent. The problem these days is they’re getting too big for me to open for them. I used to be able to come along as a hype-man, get the crowd riled up. Now – well, my violin just doesn’t carry that far.”

True, Hyde Park is not renowned for its smallness. But where else is feasible these days? Back in December, when [b]‘The Suburbs’[/b] was still in its first flush of glory, [a]Arcade Fire[/a] did two nights at The O2 that sold out in the requisite ‘record time’. Now, with global demand for their services so high, like a divorced dad who breezes through on Saturdays for ice cream and Laser Quest, Win, Régine and friends are having to emphasise quality time, not quantity. So, they’ve hired Hyde Park and filled it with a few of their favourite things. There are free screenings of Spike Jonze’s spanking-new tie-in film Scenes From The Suburbs rotating half-hourly in a tent behind the stage. There’s a croquet pitch. Pom-poms for sale for a quid – and every quid goes to help Haiti, a cause about which the band (and Régine, with her Haitian ancestry) have been massively vocal.

A whiskey-tasting bar. A Don Letts soundsystem. A photobooth with a massive snaking queue where you can get free snaps of yourself and friends superimposed onto [b]‘The Suburbs’[/b]’ album cover. And an arcade (DO. YOU. GET. IT?) stocked with retro video games, air hockey, and table-tennis tables. “We have a friend of mine from high school, who’s sort of like our creative director these days,” Win Butler explains backstage, around 6pm. “She’s in charge of helping us to achieve our ideas. We always come up with so many ideas, but we have a really lousy batting average of actually making them happen. She’s got us up to about 30 per cent.” Both Win and bandmate Jeremy Gara seem to be in a perfect state of relaxed alertness this evening – exhaling all that nervous energy by laughing at pretty much everything, as they map out the thought process behind the show.

“They open the gates at 2pm, and there’s two hours of no music. So she organised the cheerleaders, who were cheering people on as they made their way into the main arena.” Win, wearing a positively un-Win black and orange baseball cap, looks like a pro-athlete lounging around in the media green room before his next tennis tournament. “There were a couple of our ideas that got nixed on grounds of health and safety,” Jeremy adds. “We’d say, ‘We want to cover the top of the stage in fairy lights’, and they’d be like, ‘No, you can’t do that, you’ll burn people’s faces off.’”

Outside, Régine is warming up her accordion-playing fingers by working through a jaunty version of [a]Black Sabbath[/a]’s ‘[b]Iron Man[/b]’. She was scheduled to be part of our conversation, but is saving her voice, on account of having picked up a nasty cold in Europe that has been doing the rounds of the band. That’s the problem with a band this big – it’s an epidemiologist’s nightmare. They’ve been criss-crossing Europe for the better part of a year now, and so today is the big goodbye to Britain, well, certainly to the southeast – Edinburgh and Manchester still have shows scheduled for August – before they piss off again for a couple of years: regroup, recharge, write, record, repeat.

“We get to spend our whole summer at festivals,” Jeremy points out. “And you notice pretty quickly that some are just better than others, and it has a lot to do with what else is happening. When the only things happening are music and beer – I would hate to walk around that as a fan. That’s my idea of hell. But if there’s other stuff happening, great…” “Like, I’ve always wanted to have a steel-drum band playing at a show,” Win enthuses. “And before we come on tonight, there’s gonna be a steel band entertaining the crowd.” He personally trawled through loads of clips of steel bands on YouTube to source the perfect one.

Owen, of course, came pre-sourced. As soon as they found out they were all going to be in town at roughly the same time, he was rostered in for his usual shift as violin-toting hype-man. [a]Mumford & Sons[/a] they knew already from both having worked with producer Markus Dravs (also bouncing around the backstage area, looking like a particularly proud parent). [a]Beirut[/a] they’re long-time fans of/friends with. [a]The Vaccines[/a] they’d never even heard before today (Win: “Our manager really liked them”), which is OK, because bassist Arni Hjörvar confesses that he’s never seen [a]Arcade Fire[/a] play live, and still won’t today, because they’re all jetting off to Switzerland by 8pm.

“We’re just so glad the weather’s held out,” Win laughs; by 10 to four, the whole mad scheme had looked like it might be
a soggy affair. Rain started to piss rapidly from darkened west London skies. Owen’s set-up was soaked. Roadies were running squeegee brooms along the stage. Then, with the divine intervention that Win can summon at will, just as suddenly as it arrived, the storm cleared, and for the rest of the evening W1 is marinaded in balmy June temperatures.

[a]Beirut[/a] parp their orchestral awesomeness all over the place, playing a fistful of great new songs from the forthcoming [b]The Rip Tide’[/b], all with a more pop, less overtly ethnic tincture than 2007’s [b]‘The Flying Club Cup’[/b]. [a]The Vaccines[/a] issue their standard set to a slightly muted response – the more folkie side of the AF fanbase have turned out tonight, going by the reception delivered to [a]Mumford & Sons[/a].

Honestly: what is up with the human race and [a]Mumford & Sons[/a]? Even playing new stuff doesn’t seem to stop them being barn-danced-up at all corners. “Let’s have a hoedown,” Marcus tells everyone, and somehow you just know he’s not referring to the shooting of a prostitute in the Bronx. When [a]Arcade Fire[/a] do stream on, with Owen returning to back them on violin, it’s to audio clips from Spike Jonze’s half-hour sci-fi suburbanite creepfest, onto a stage trimmed with aerial photos of chillingly anonymous suburban hinterlands. The suburbs are here, too, in the form of the many office workers who’ve clearly spilled out of the West End, still in their day clothes.

A nod, a grin, and they tear into [b]‘Ready To Start’[/b], their equivalent of Oasis’ ‘Hello’. It’s the same opener as in France on Tuesday. But any ideas that they’ll be treading through their standard headline show setlist are rapidly dashed when Win announces traditional final-act tub-thumper [b]‘Wake Up’[/b] as the second song in. “We wanted to play this one while we could still see you,” he announces, as the sun sags low over the Serpentine. Régine, clearly bearing up well, her tropical punch-flavoured print dress a definite hit tonight, stakes out an early high-water mark with a celebratory ‘Haiti’, before retreating to the drumkit as a wan, greenlit ‘Rococo’ pulls the temperature back down in a way that feels as though they’re pacing themselves.

“We’ve only played this song in soundcheck before,” Win announces by way of introduction to [b]‘Speaking In Tongues’[/b], the song they recorded with David Byrne for [b]‘The Suburbs’[/b], but ultimately left off the album. Its soft cooings are an interestingly wayward diversion, but don’t have the sort of primal power needed to wake up the packs of office workers jawing with their mates round the arena fringes. Win has a few digs at the “rich neighbours” for passing bye-laws keeping the decibel levels down to typically low Hyde Park levels, and it’s difficult to work out whether he’s more half-serious than half-joking, as the crowd’s energy levels stall. It’s only over halfway in, in the back half of [b]‘Month Of May’[/b], that everything very suddenly, really quite remarkably, kicks into overdrive.

Somewhere in its piston guitar chops, Win uncovers the key, and from then on in, the whole audience are singing along, clapping, having epiphany after epiphany, as they motor through [b]‘Rebellion (Lies)’[/b], [b]‘Neighborhood #2 (Laika)’[/b] and [b]‘We Used To Wait’[/b], before coming back to encore through [b]‘Keep The Car Running’[/b] and [b]‘Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)’[/b]. As the never-less-than-exquisite Régine show-stopper [b]‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’[/b] peals out and [a]Arcade Fire[/a]’s UK ascendancy reaches what, by any logical metric, surely must be a peak, it’s extraordinary to look back on how far they’ve come in seven years. “I always knew,” Owen told us earlier. “From the moment I went into the studio and heard what they were doing with [b]‘Funeral’[/b], I was like, ‘OK, so they’re going to be the biggest band I’ll ever meet.’”

Gavin Haynes

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