Pristram has been in London barely a week from his native Quebec. He heard about this evening the other day and decided to get here at 3pm to be one of the 50 who could buy the last batch of tickets held back. Two lads had been here from 6am.
The foreign workers in front of me had been sent by their boss to wait in the queue just to reserve him a spot. They didn’t have a clue who the Arcade Fire were, shuffling in circles and moaning every so often about wanting to go home.
Across the road, the touts stood looking on grimly. They were beaten and knew it.
St John’s couldn’t be a more suitable choice of setting. Acoustics: nigh on perfect. Backdrop: stunning. Intimacy: treasurable. An old church normally reserved for classical performances, tonight is the sacred ground for the first UK reading of the Neon Bible, the Arcade Fire’s immense second album.
Five minutes in and Win Butler is already blaspheming. “Jesus fucking Christ!” he deadpans. There’s an element of carry on about the band tonight. This bout of small shows, first in Montreal, then London and then New York, is the first opportunity they’ve had to road test new material.
They are understandably, if comically, rusty in some respects. Equipment is dropped, amps squeal, they bump into each other like ants on a half-eaten biscuit (the current touring ensemble brings the band’s numbers to ten). It’s also a fascinating sight, being two pews in, watching them wear ‘what are we doing here expressions’, exchange nervous glances, or return your smiles.
Neon Bible is aired in all its radiant entirety, bar the title track. There are some incredible songs on it, which makes tonight’s setting all the more distinct, since St John’s harnesses the album’s sound superbly and is everything one imagines it to be performed – rich, dense, raining compounds of strings and French horns. It is a wistful soundtrack, epic and anthemic that stands up to Funeral, delivered on a scale that tips from carefree to intense. Indeed you cannot keep your eyes off Win Butler, each note he sings delivers some inner penance to his soul which he washes out on this cluttered altar.
Ocean Of Noise, the album’s standout, is recreated in all its weary, dreamy aplomb and when melded with Rebellion and the organ driven hymn Intervention, forms a dramatic centrepiece to the evening. After the encore of Power Out, the band picked up their instruments and headed through the crowd to the south exit and busked Wake Up on the steps of the church. Onlookers stopped briefly, bendy buses zipped on the main road nearby and we danced on the steep concrete steps. It captured a moment of real communion between a band and its fans.
They head to traditional venues after this series, which will never recreate this evening. People deserve to experience this. Trying to sum it up in words is like asking a soldier what combat is like. Everyone has their stories, but sometimes you never really, truly understand these unless you’ve seen them through your eyes.