In the red corner: Arcade Fire, indisputably one of the world’s greatest live bands, known for knockout shows and punchy, emotional music. In the blue corner: York Hall, a venerable wooden panelled boxing establishment in London’s east end, imbued with nearly a century’s worth of blood, sweat and tears. Throw in balmy temperatures and the excitable atmosphere of an unmissable event, and on the match card and in practise, this heady combination was a fitting first London bout for the Montrealers’ latest work, Everything Now.
Since debuting their first new songs since 2013’s David Bowie-featuring Reflektor at a hometown show in May, information about the new album has dripped like sweat from a brow into the public domain. Longtime producing cohort Markus Dravs is again on board, this time alongside Pulp’s Steve Mackey and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, who helm second single Creature Comfort’s warm huggy shuffle, and Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, one of those responsible for the title track. These names give some indication of the direction of travel – synths are much in evidence, but the marriage of propulsive rhythms and hooky, earworm melodies underline that Arcade Fire remain in control of their sound, building on established relationships to enhance their core strength.
The stage is set square in the centre of the room for this in-the-round gig. The Everything Now logo is everywhere – draped from the balcony circle, above the venue’s entrance. It’s even on Win Butler’s jacket, evident as he limbers up from backstage, all boxer-like of bounce and ready to do battle as he joins his eight bandmates on stage.
Now well into their second decade, Arcade Fire have the means to land knockout blows from the start of the set to its end, and the new material, of which we get five tracks tonight, holds up well against almost all their heavyweight classics. Following an opening blast of tenor sax from atop a stage-mounted rostrum – they title this introduction Everything Slow on the setlist – we get the new album’s title track. With its bright piano lead recalling nothing so much as Abba’s Dancing Queen, it’s met with immediate singalongs, abandoned dancing and joyous faces, all suggestive of a track that in these days of streaming is already a fan favourite. It punches straight into Rebellion (Lies), from which point the set never once threatens to sag.
Signs Of Life, similarly available ahead of these dates, finds its place later in the set; slick on record, it is an unabashed party rouser in this visceral setting, all hand claps and ramping-up synth riffs. And there’s the almost-reggae, not-quite-disco shimmy of Chemistry, a track that sounds like a follow-on from Reflektor, bulked out by that superbly muscular rhythm section and a keytar-sporting Regine Chassagne, who somehow succeeds in not hyperventilating in a red leather suit. Later we get the bombastic Creature Comfort, Chassagne here turning into a disco diva over a backing that calls New Order willingly to mind.
Their untouchably classic material, the bulk of debut album Funeral at its heart – we get Tunnels midway through – now definitely includes Reflektor, the title track of their last album produced by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy. A stellar disco tour de force unlike anything else even this evolving bunch have produced, the recording’s Bowie vocals are not here in evidence; to have pasted them on would have been rather mawkish. Yet his spirit looms paternally over this song still. All around, ecstatic interpretive dancing breaks out; people are quite lost in the music and flailing about for all they’re worth, skyrocketing temperatures notwithstanding. It’s one of several sublime moments.
Spoken interjections are nary non-existent, for such is the power of this uplifting and so very human music, and its juxtaposingly deadly serious lyrics, amplified thrillingly in such an up-close-and-personal setting, that mere speaking would serve only to lessen the intensity. The band seem well to know this, and distractions from the music are minimal, though well judged. Chassagne twirls about with streamer ribbons at one point, somehow not getting tangled up in instrumentation, mic stands or band members, while husband Win Butler limbers his way up on to the stage-upon-a-stage to deliver football terrace entreaties served up as primal roars from the soul.
It all gloriously, pummelingly comes to a close with a bassed-up Power Out – mesmerising, transformative music, surely as perfect as any music could ever be – and the please-don’t-let-it-stop Wake Up, sweat dripping from the ceiling, every soul in the room howling at the top of their lungs to tear-welling effect. Long after Arcade Fire have bowed, grinned, saluted and left the stage, this audience refuses to budge, hollering, begging, pleading for more. These Canadian prizefighters are at the top of their game, and everyone in York Hall on this evening knows it.
Arcade Fire played: Everything Slow, Everything Now, Rebellion (Lies), Laika, Here Comes The Night Time, Chemistry, No Cars Go, We Used To Wait, Neon Bible, Ready To Start, Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels), Sprawl 2 (Mountains Beyond Mountains), Reflektor, Afterlife, Creature Comfort, Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out), Wake Up