God, I hate corporate venues. I hate Ticketmaster, and I hate the way fans of bands get screwed every time their band plays somewhere like the O2. Why? Because you get forced into trying to buy tickets in some horrendous BUY NOW LIMITED SALE frenzy, hopefully clicking “retry” as the web page times out, until you finally manage to get a pair of tickets somewhere up in the roof. This is pre-sale, mind, even before the full release. The event sells out quickly. Then, of course, a few days before showtime, “a limited additional number of tickets” goes on sale. And natch, these are nicer seats, closer to the stage and everything. All because the venue tried flogging the tickets to their corporate snollygosters, who, funnily enough, aren’t particularly interested in seeing a bunch of hairies from Montreal play hurdy-gurdies in 3/4 time.
Corporate gigs suck ass. Give me a “stand where you like” ticket, sold by someone reasonably nice, in a lovely venue like Bush Hall or Union Chapel any time of day. Maybe it’s good that I generally like bands that not all that many other people like, I suppose. Not for the band, of course – they probably want to sell tens of thousands of tickets somewhere like the O2, at £30+ a pop. Pays the rent, dunnit?
Moaning aside, I’d heard good things about the O2 Arena, previously known as the Horrendous White Elephant Situated On A Heavily Polluted Ex-Gasworks In A Not Very Nice Part Of London. The missus had even been there a few times and enjoyed it. And I can see it from my desk. And you know what, it’s….ok….ish.
Here to see those fine purveyors of anthemic Canadian rabble-rousing millennial angst uplifting doom merchants Arcade Fire, ably supported by hippy-dippy Pan impersonator, and all round horn-dog Devendra Banhart. At least, all the women I know hope he’s a horn-dog. Apparently he’s quite the attractive fellow. I can’t judge, frankly, as I can’t think of him without seeing this picture in my head:
Whatever floats your boat, I suppose, ladies.
In any case, would our Dev be able to fill out the cavernous interior of the O2 with his quirky freak-folk? No idea. None whatsoever. You see, by the time we got there, hunger reigned and by the time food had been eaten, he’d buggered off. Mind you, from our seats up in the Gods, I’d doubt we’d have been able to see if he was in a frock, a smock, or a diving costume. I hate arenas.
Arcade Fire have been touted as one of the few bands in recent decades to make the jump from Indie Stardom to genuine Arena fillers. And they’ve done so, as the charming Win Butler points out late in the show, without having had a hit record1. Arcade Fire have become BIG. Which, as you’d probably guessed from the title of this post, has its irksome qualities. Like having to traipse out to this big bloody tent. Whilst it is indeed a stunning place, the venue hasn’t seemed to work out that about a third of the crowd (at least) can’t see anything of the band, and the smallish video screen behind the band doesn’t help all that much. Come on O2, shell out on some proper screens either side of the stage so we can see the band.
After the dour Neon Bible, hopes were high for this year’s follow-up The Suburbs, which have been slightly dashed, as the record is overlong and hasn’t quite shrugged off that oppressive meh-ness of Neon Bible. Opener “Ready To Start” is fine, all that you’d expect from 2010 vintage Arcade Fire, and follow-up “Keep The Car Running” (featuring an imaginative video of a car driving along a highway) certainly has that propulsion and drive that have catapulted them to this level of stardom, but the sound is claggy, with little space for any delicacy or intricacy. That doesn’t matter so much when “Laika” is played. The first of the Funeral songs, you are reminded of why you – and anyone else with any sense – loved that album. Astonishing isn’t quite the right word. The hairs on my arms stood to attention, and looking down, we could see the standing hordes going mental to the clattering drums, frenetic violins and the nearly screamed vocals. You don’t often get huge crowds singing along to lines like “Our mother should have just named you Laika”.
Then we’re back down to earth with the U2-a-go-go “No Cars Go”, with “Haiti” following it, lacking the space that made it such a compelling song on Funeral. You know, folks, sometimes you need to be quiet to make the loudest noise. The next newie features Régine Chassagne dancing around with those twirly ribbony things (I have no idea what they are called). What’s next, a mime? Being stuck inside an invisible box? “Rococo” (their Smog tribute) is ok, “My Body Is A Cage” is doomy apocalyptic dullness personified, and “The Suburbs” was frankly a touch dull. “Crown Of Love” isn’t much cheerier than “My Body Is A Cage”, but demonstrates how their early restlessness – you know, that sudden tempo change – turn a reasonable album track into something far more interesting; a trick their last two albums seem to have forgotten. When, on listening to either Neon Bible or The Suburbs, have you been surprised?
And this problem gets thrown into sharp relief again with the “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)/Rebellion (Lies)” medley (segue). Like “Laika”, it’s stunning. Both songs are driven onward by crazy drumming; there’s a ridiculous amount of energy emanating from the band. Mad percussionist bloke runs around the stage like a hyperactive kid that’s been fed too many sweets. And the sound is better, the bass thumping out during “Power Out”, and the poor glockenspiel gets hugely, amusingly abused. The band seem to just enjoy playing the older stuff far more, and even from the dizzy heights of the upper tier it looks like they are having a dangerous amount of fun, whereas some of the newer songs appear to be something of a chore. For example, “Month Of May” just peters out at the end, as though the band themselves couldn’t think of anything better to do2.
As you’d expect, the end comes with “Wake Up”, finishing the night off marvellously. Peaks and troughs then, but in the end, it seemed like everyone was happy. As we traipsed out with the other 17,000 people, I made a comment to the missus about how it’d been all downhill since “Funeral”. She looked out over the massed crowds and just said “Some downhill”.
I’d love to meet the band and ask them – “How do you feel knowing that everything you do now is compared to your first record? And that you know that you’ll never better it, or even come close?”. And I’d expect the same response that the journalist got from Joseph Heller, who when asked, “Why haven’t you written as good as Catch 22?”, simply replied “Who has?”. Truth is, Funeral was a once in a decade record; utterly entrancing, bringing you into a hugely emotional world, as capable as bringing tears to your eyes as making you jump around, hug everyone in sight, and go a little bit mental3.
So maybe I shouldn’t complain. They seem like a lovely bunch; a bit earnest, maybe, but fundamentally decent, and genuinely try to make a difference4. They’ve tried lots of interesting ways to release and promote their records and work damn hard to treat their fans with respect. They throw an enviable amount of energy into their live performances and notwithstanding the venue and some of the material, it was a good night out. Shouldn’t that be enough?
1 Though their albums have sold well over a million copies worldwide, which is pretty good going.
2 Funnily enough, I’ve picked up comments here and there that this song is not exactly a fan favourite.
3 Even as I type this, listening to “Power Out”, tears are welling up and my heart is thumping. Not many records can do that.
4 For every ticket they sell on tour, £1/$1/€1 goes to the charity Partners In Health. Good stuff.