It’s when the crowd favourites begin that you tense up – the songs when arms point skywards and tens of thousands of voices chant the guitar riff. That’s the cue for some wag 20 yards behind you to hurl their drink into the air. There’s no warning when it hits; just the dismay of being drenched in beer and a rapid attempt to suppress the next thought: what if it’s not beer?
In the event I got off lightly at Finsbury Park. An empty plastic bottle fell on my head as the Arctic Monkeys played “Brianstorm”. I successfully dodged a young woman toppling off a man’s shoulders while Alex Turner sang about teenage love in “Knee Socks”. There were a few splashes from passing projectiles but no direct hits. I ceased glancing nervously behind me and allowed myself to concentrate on the show – the one happening on stage, not the modern-day Bartholomew Fair unfolding around me.
Until recently you wouldn’t have bet on the Arctic Monkeys managing to stamp themselves on a rowdy crowd of 45,000 people. They were too static and prickly in manner, seemingly unwilling to embrace their status as heirs to Oasis’s throne. But over time they have deepened and broadened their sound, culminating in last year’s masterful album AM, and developed a stage show to match. The first of two nights at Finsbury Park confirmed the achievement, with Turner in particular revelling in his role as ringmaster.
It opened with the Sheffield quartet coming into view on a revolving stage with dry ice and flashing white lights. AM’s first track “Do I Wanna Know?” rang out, guitarist Jamie Cook, in a sharp white suit, playing a grinding riff, Turner swapping the pellmell tempo of old for a measured style of singing, lascivious and knowing where once he was adolescent and jittery. Hair slicked back in a 1950s quiff, he has created a fantasy rockabilly image for himself, an act of theatre that has brought out the inner showman in him, all falsetto refrains and stylised moves.
Their music also has a new swagger, a hard-rock-derived sense of groove illustrated by the snippet of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” they interpolated into AM’s “Arabella”. Changes of pace were expertly made. Acoustic tracks provided breathing spaces, such as Turner’s solo version of “A Certain Romance” from their debut album, and there were bold juxtapositions, such as between the energy rush of “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” and the doo-wop-influenced “She’s Thunderstorms”.
They ended with AM’s “R U Mine?”, Turner pausing the song midway through to whip up applause, before the song’s big rolling riff struck up again with immaculate timing. The bottle-throwers forgot to send a final volley of projectiles into the air: they were too caught up in the moment.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney was named Arts Reviewer of the Year at this year’s London Press Club awards