Arcade Fire @ Nottingham Arena, 31st August 2007
I think the first time I ever really noticed the Arcade Fire was when everyone else seemed to be absolutely raving about them and saying how their debut album ("Funeral") was the greatest thing ever recorded. Although all this talk naturally made me curious to hear them, it also managed to give me the impression that they almost certainly weren't going to be as good as their reputation would have me believe. In a way, I suppose I was right: although I thought it was a good enough album, it didn't jump out at me as being a classic. I listened to it for a bit and then filed it away for future reference. A few months later, I dug it back out again and gave it another listen. With a bit of distance, and with less (imagined) pressure to hail it as a work of genius, I found that it was growing on me and that and that songs like "Neighbourhood #2 (Laika)", "Wake up" and "Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)" were actually really good.
I was away in Ecuador when "Neon Bible" came out, but was lucky enough to receive it as a birthday gift immediately upon my return. Again, the band were being praised from the rooftops, and again, I found that this put me off being able to listen to this with a completely open mind. It's not that I wanted to dislike them, particularly, and it's not the band's fault, it's just that for some reason I felt as though people were telling me that I should like them because they were obviously brilliant. I thought they were pretty good, but.... brilliant? Hmmm. Not to my ears, not immediately, anyway. Even then, it was clear that by almost anyone's standards, this was certainly a good album and more than enough for me to decide that I wanted to see them live - perhaps at the Glastonbury festival in June.
Alas, as the timetable turned out, I was only able to watch the first 30 minutes of the Arcade Fire set before I had to (slightly reluctantly) trudge off up to the Pyramid Stage to watch the Arctic Monkeys. From what I saw of them, the Arcade Fire looked a formidable live proposition - but I had made the tactical decision that I was more likely to be able to get tickets to see the Arcade Fire playing again than I was to be able to see the Monkeys again. As it turns out, I was right.... and on the very same day that I got back to Nottingham from the festival, I was able to buy standing tickets for their gig at the Nottingham Arena - all the while hoping that their fans wouldn't be as rude in an arena as they had been in a muddy field in Somerset (when they pushed and shoved their way past everyone even before Rufus Wainwright had finished his set, as if they somehow *deserved* to be standing at the front).
As usual with an arena gig, we didn't exactly break our necks to get there early. We waltzed in some time after the support band had finished and adopted a position towards the back and well away from the crush at the front. Although clearly not a sell-out, the Arena was pretty full and I think I actually detected an air of some anticipation from the crowd. I had just about enough time to get a beer and listen to the halloween themed music on the PA before the band took to the stage - a process that took a good couple of minutes. I suppose the Arcade Fire had to become an arena band really.... they're the only stages anywhere near big enough to take a band with so many members. As well as the traditional guitars, bass, drums and keyboards, the Arcade Fire also seem to have a couple of auxiliary drummers, an organist, some brass and their own strings section (it's hard to tell exactly how many members there are in the band as they all seem to be multi-instrumentalists and well capable of playing anything that happened to be close to hand. Even the bloody drummer seemed comfortable on keyboard and guitars for a couple of numbers. The drummer, for heaven's sake. Whatever next? I think I counted 10 of them in all).
Just as I was at Glastonbury, for some reason I found myself being surprised by quite how easily their sound fills a venue of this size. It's not that they sound small on record, it's just that their music seems to grow and sounds right played in a great big barn like this... which certainly isn't true of every band I've seen here. They open up with "Black Mirror" and sound fantastic. As LB pointed out, Win Butler sounds a lot like David Byrne from Talking Heads, but for my money the sound of the band is rather less sparse and spiky than that of Talking Heads. I'm not sure I'm convinced that they are a great band though, although they are clearly capable of great things. About half of the material that they play is stratospherically good: Neighbourhoods #1, #2 and #3, Wake Up, Black Mirror, Keep The Car Running, No Cars Go... but I find the rest of their material stuggles to live with that kind of quality. Perhaps this is partly because I don't know their albums inside out, but I think it's also partly to do with the fact that although their peaks are very high indeed, they haven't yet got the material to sustain that level of quality for a whole gig and so there are inevitably a few lulls. They're clearly very accomplished musicians though, and their performance is intense enough that they effortlessly hold the attention of the crowd throughout. Perhaps just to make my night, they also play a cover version of "Still Ill" by The Smiths. As soon as I recognised the opening chords, I was wondering if it would be fair to add a mark to my verdict just because they were playing a Smiths song, but as they got into it, I realised that they weren't doing a very good job of it. Oh, to be fair, I suppose they made a decent fist of it, and it's a great song and everything... it's just that it brought it really served to bring home for me just how good The Smiths were. The Arcade Fire are not that good. At least not yet....
They closed the set with a triumphant version of "Wake Up" that had the whole Arena on their feet and dancing, and then they were gone leaving me with the impression that they were a good band; a band with some great material and with the potential to be a great band... but they're not a great band quite yet.
Verdict: 7.5 / 10