National football teams need warm-up games before the World Cup; international bands need warm-up gigs before headlining Glastonbury. That may have been Arcade Fire’s thinking in giving two concerts at Earls Court last week. After the first of them, the kinetic Canadians can have had no worries about the form of their rhythm section (Haitian conga-assisted) or the potency of their forwards, husband-and-wife frontpersons Win Butler and Régine Chassagne. The core six, plus auxiliaries enough to fill a football team, are bang up for the challenge.
Disco-colourful and biggish budget, the show nevertheless felt persuasively homemade. Arcade Fire were here to party. A human mirrorball and a group of almost self-parodic dancers popped up on a B-stage deep in the crowd; Chassagne waved a pair of what looked like silver tea-trays. Butler, an awkward soul, was positively genial. The drabness of Earls Court – a venue condemned to demolition – only enhanced the alchemy.
“Reflektor”, from the 2013 album of that name, kicked things off, its warped punk-funk din stirring an enormous pot of groove. The mutant calypso of “Flashbulb Eyes” was shot through by steel pans, which then decorated the intro to “Power Out”, from Arcade Fire’s superb 2004 debut, Funeral. That song’s jittery propulsion instantly affirmed that they have made some of the most convulsively exciting rock of the past decade. It hit me how well the newest material dovetailed with the oldest, not so much in style as in spiritedness. Arcade Fire are best when a bit hysterical: plagued by paranoia or consumed with fervour. Energy leaked away on “The Suburbs”, a piano-led toe-tapper but a peculiarly turgid one.
Shrewdly, the band stuffed the middle of the gig with fan favourites. Echo & the Bunnymen lead singer Ian McCulloch, guesting on a cover of his band’s “The Cutter”, sounded dour by comparison. It’s a shame that Neon Bible, Arcade Fire’s second album, seems to have fallen out of favour. “Ocean of Noise” could have made an intriguing change of pace.
As the denouement, a run of three recent songs seemed risky, like throwing on your most inexperienced strikers when desperate for a goal. It nearly worked. I found “It’s Never Over” overlong, the singers’ duet across the main and mini stages merely tricksy. Yet the depleting shimmer of Chassagne’s “Sprawl II” became a fine finale.
A rum crew wearing papier-mâché “bobbleheads” began added time with a mariachi prank. Timewasting, more like. “Here Comes the Night Time”, however, was loose-limbed and simply terrific – alternately, lolloping cortege-shuffle and deranged, surging fusillade. At the last: “Wake Up”, woah-woah-woah-oh-ohs, gusts of glitter. “Glastonbury,” Butler intoned a moment earlier, “I think it’s gonna be all right.” No arguments with this ref there.