“If you give us your fucking heart, we’ll give you ours,” declares Arcade Fire‘s Win Butler to the thousands of devotees with arms outstretched into the Belgian sunset. It’s only the opening day of Rock Werchter 2017, and Butler’s promise perfectly captures the spirit of the occasion – an unbridled display of passion from music fans who just want to lose their minds, regardless of what’s on stage.
“Is it loud enough?” snarls Savages‘ Jehnny Beth earlier on, Christening the main stage, “I know it’s early, but it’s about to get a little louder”. Back on stage together for the first time in seven months, the band actively lead punk away from nihilism and towards an energetic celebration of life, unity, and defiance. Beth spends just as much time walking over the crowd as she does stalking the stage like a predator, her every move an inflammatory invitation for the crowd to lose their shit.
That same mood lingers as the crowd swells for the Rage Against The Machine, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill supergroup Prophets Of Rage – with punk power and politics out on parade to ‘make Belgium rage again’. There’s no thrill comparable to the primal reaction of hearing ‘Testify’, ‘Sleep Now In The Fire’ and ‘Killing In The Name’ played by the three metal pioneers themselves, but the vocals of Chuck D and B-Real with the backing of DJ Lord make the aggression much more streetwise and allows for a wider allowance of diversity. Throwing in covers of ‘Fight The Power’, ‘Jump Around’ and ‘How I Could Just Kill A Man’ destroys the boundaries of genre, and creates a reaction nothing short of feral.
“We’re from a country very, very far from away from here,” a visibly humbled Lorde tells the packed out Barn stage. “It would take me a day to get home right now.”
Introducing the tender ‘Liability’, she opens up: “This is a song about being alone and learning how to be alone for the first time, because it’s something you have to learn. It’s one thing to go ‘I’m going to go to a restaurant by myself’. You’re sitting there, you’ve looked at everything you could possibly look at on your phone, and you think ‘shit, have I missed something?’ For me, I was always scared to be alone because I felt like I was kind of a loser and when I was by myself I was way more aware of that.
“I think everyone knows how it feels to walk into a room and be scared that you’re ‘too much’ for everyone, or that everyone’s just going to leave,” she starts to stifle tears. “But I want you to know, it’s going to be OK.”
It’s a rare privilege to see one on the finest performers of the planet in such a setting. Stripped of the huge perspex box set-up that dominated the stage at Coachella and Glastonbury, Lorde stands before us with a much more direct and intimate performance. She’s a stone’s throw away, dancing like nobody’s watching, treating the audience like friends. There’s a warmth saved for the inverted anthemics of ‘Tennis Court’, ‘Team’ and a deafening sing-along of ‘Royals’, while there’s nothing quite like the sheer abandon that overtakes you for ‘Supercut’ and ‘Green Light’. Everything feels heightened in here, but ultimately human. There’s no persona, no gimmicks, it’s just us and Ella. She could make anywhere feel like home.
There’s a rush to the main stage where the crowd stretches on into the horizon awaiting Arcade Fire. The disco instrumental of ‘Everything Now’ whirrs up and Werchter is at once lost to dance for an unrelenting 90 minutes. Anthem follows anthem as Win Butler and co create a carnival with 16 songs. The choral call to arms of their early material with ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ and ‘Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)’ inspires the same religious fervour as it did back in 2004, but the full journey of the setlist shows a band highly evolved and at the peak of their powers.
“Sing this one for David Bowie,” says Butler of their late friend and collaborator, introducing ‘The Suburbs’. “David, we miss you so fucking so much. Let’s pray that somewhere, a child is born with David Bowie’s soul”. Save your prayers, as it is Arcade Fire who have picked up his torch and are charging with it into the distant future. While ‘Reflektor’, ‘Here Comes The Night Time’ and ‘Afterlife’ from the previous record saw the band move from antiquity into the space, the adventurous dance-driven new tracks ‘Creature Comfort’ and ‘Signs Of Life’ are among the best received this evening – an acknowledgement of that chameleon-like swagger into new terrain that they inherited from the Thin White Duke.
Closed with a seismic sing-along of ‘Wake Up’ before Butler awards his tambourine to a young girl in the crowd who spent the entire show on her father’s shoulders, Arcade Fire couldn’t possibly have given much more. Kings Of Leon ended the night with a set loaded with the arena friendly warmth of their latter days, but sadly lacking in the danger that first made you fall in love with them. They’re a band built for festivals and can do little wrong, but it was the magic of Arcade Fire that will remain the enduring memory of the day. They just had it – every member performing as if it was the last night on Earth, and the audience giving the love back in spades. To see them in 2017, is to watch Arcade Fire reaching a career high. That is how you win hearts, and they have ours.
Arcade Fire played:
Here Comes the Night Time
Signs of Life
No Cars Go
The Suburbs (Continued)
Ready to Start
Month of May
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)