Arcade Fire in a London Fog
Amazon Prime U.K. and Twitch Team to Stream
The art of concert streaming and performance should have evolved during the COVID pandemic, as artists and audiences looked to replace touring and live events. Bob Boilen's long-running NPR Tiny Desk concerts provided a template. Before lockdown in 2020, Harry Styles squeezed his band into Boilen's cramped radio studio. It was a turning point in enhancing the credibility of the former boy band singer and revealed a fast-maturing artist with songs and charm to spare. His sweater a embroidered with a mysterious chicken-with-a-vest was one of those sartorial statements that justified going viral. For two years, everybody went acoustic, went small.
But Arcade Fire is emerging from the lockdown with the kind of Big Statement events that attempt to justify its place as the last of the Big Time rock bands. The collective based in Montreal has a new album, "WE" out May 6. To advance the buzz, Arcade Fire was one of the inaugural artists to perform Friday night at the opening of Koko, a much loved club over many generations of music fans in London's Camden Town.
Koko was known as Camden Palace in 1982, where it was the magnet for New Romantic bands and fans. While undergoing renovation in January 2020, the club and its famous dome were destroyed in a fire. The reopening last night (4 pm EDT), was streamed by Amazon Prime U.K. and the videogame-oriented network Twitch. At various times during the show, Arcade Fire's singer Win Butler appeared tuned in to the spirit of the fire and the spiritual revival of both the club and his band. (Will Butler, who grew up with his brother in a suburb of Houston, and was a co-founder of Arcade Fire, left the band, it was recently announced, because it was "time for new things.")
Win Butler sweats in the fog at Koko in London April 29, 2022
At one moment, Butler wanted to channel the spirit of the fire. He pleaded for silence, a tough ask at a rock concert, especially for an arena band in a small club. "I'm not trying to be an asshole," he said. "I just think it would be beautiful if everyone was quiet."
Telling the audience you're not trying to be an asshole is certainly a new wrinkle of self-awareness in rock stardom. Think of all the bands you've seen where the singer would never admit to being an asshole, or appearing to be one. I applaud Butler's awareness.
Then, with a shout out to Peter Gabriel, who was in the audience, he dipped into the Arcade Fire catalog for "My Body is a Cage." Gabriel had covered "Cage," an uninspired rendition, in 2010. Why he didn't nail it, I'm not sure. But this final track from the band's 2007's seminal second album "Neon Bible," is a prototype of the great music Arcade Fire made through first decade of 2000s. It seemed like every song on "Neon Bible" could be covered by a wide variety of stars, as I paired each song with a different singer on my old Blogger blog. I had about six choices for "My Body is a Cage," including Iggy Pop.
For me, Arcade Fire was the great band of the 21st century, starting with "Funeral" in 2003, hitting on all cylinders with "Neon Bible," and then making the great leap, to "The Suburbs" in 2010. That album won 2011 Album of the Year Grammy Award. That prize, though, affirmed the cultural cleavage afflicting rock and its relatives. Proponents of Arcade Fire thought it well-deserved. I suspect that the larger segment of pop music audience wondered, "What is Arcade Fire?"
The award seemed like a culmination of Arcade Fire's excellence, but also a last hurrah for self-contained, ambitious 21st century rock bands. Only Vampire Weekend remains in their league, and may have even surpassed them.
Until "WE," their more recent albums have been disappointing: "Everything Now" lacked consistent good songs, and "Reflektor" was a misfired shot into electronic dance music (EDM). Last night's London show was notable for the absence of guitar from the sound, although one or two were played onstage. Keyboards of all kinds rule, as the focus shifts from what was a melange of North American rock and roots music personified by Butler's wife, Regine Chassagne, a native of Montreal and daughter of Haitian parents. Chassagne had her moments in the spotlight, playing keytar and singing in a thin but appealing wail. Some of the live commenters accurately compared some of her lengthy wails to Yoko Ono. Others, at moments when she was dancing, with colored lasers emanating from her belt and from her fingers, thought of Tina Turner, which only someone who has never seen or heard Tina Turner could possibly say.
Arcade Fire's best music can be slick but also mangy: each album consists of songs of multiple parts, the pace, and mood shifting within. Thoughtful, pensive, then arena-singalong big: Radiohead meets Springsteen's E Street Band, except Arcade Fire's songs are fueled by self-doubt, and anxiety.
The anxiety is made manifest at the beginning of the show, when a recording of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's 1958 poem "I Am Waiting" is played before the band's entrance. "I am waiting...for the Age of Anxiety to drop dead," Ferlinghetti wrote in this electric moment from "A Coney Island of the Mind." The new album's opening song(s), numbered in sections, which is an Arcade Fire meme, is "The Age of Anxiety I-II." Part two already seemed known to the crowd by its parenthetical title, "Rabbit Hole."
"The Age of Anxiety" is a perfect theme, and a perfect metaphor, for Arcade Fire. The phrase was most likely made famous by W.H. Auden's epochal poem written in New York in 1944, World War II at its peak. It was loved, and it was loathed. British critics resented Auden's emigration to the U.S.; it inspired Leonard Bernstein to write a symphony. During the song "Everything Now," a possibly anxious Butler acknowledged he had forgotten the words.
Technical problems knocked out both the video and the audio twice early in the 90 minute set. The problems were quickly fixed. I thought the sound was excellent using the $40 computer desktop speakers that I bought at least 10 years ago. Alternating from full screen to computer inset so I could read the live comments of the fans, many complained of a "flat" sound, but I have no way of knowing if the international audience (most from Europe and South America) were participating in the livestream using phones or laptops without extra audio augmentation.
But the video was poorly designed, or rather, the staging was. If you are treating your fans to an intimate concert, why have smoke machines running full-time, from beginning to end? It's such a distressing visual cliché, and not smart presentation on video. The band essentially disappeared into a London fog for long periods of the show.
People making live comments seemed divided: It's the nature of the viral mob, an audience that started, according to the on-screen tracking, was well over 11,000 when I started to notice it, but dipped to under 6,700 when Arcade Fire performed what may or may not have been the final encore, "Wake Up." Butler told the audience that "You have to figure it out on your own; if you do, we'll do another song." Too much power to the people: After a few seconds, the telecast was over.
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