It’s been six long years since Arcade Fire last visited Manchester. The city wasn’t included on the 2013/14 ‘Reflektor’ tour while there were multiple shows in the south. Moreover, that album, their fourth, polarised fans; the majority liking it – indeed it won many new ones – but a sizeable minority not welcoming the shift towards dance-oriented music.
So in a strange sort of way and with a new album, Everything Now, about to be released to boot, Arcade Fire had something to prove at this Sounds of the City/Manchester International Festival show on Thursday night. On a night high on emotion, they did just that.
Win Butler has a long memory. I recall him once in Sweden thanking doctors in Stockholm for saving his life on a previous visit to that country three years earlier. He would not have needed to be told that their last show here was at the Arena.
From the moment he put his hand to his heart as the opening bars of Everything Now strike up, via the acknowledgment of the city’s “fearlessness” and “inspiration,” to the perfectly fitting exit to an almost sombre acoustic version of Joy Divisions’s Love Will Tear Us Apart, supported by an impeccable piece of violin work from Sarah Neufeld and illuminated by thousands of phones, this was always going to be something special. Manchester music was a big influence on a young Butler in his Houston suburbs and tonight he and his band were repaying a compliment.
This is a different, stripped back, Arcade Fire. The bombast of Reflektor has gone; there isn’t a bobble head in sight. The sound is different, too, with only one set of strings and hardly any brass; more electronic. Even Win Butler’s voice seems to have changed (though not Regine Chassagne’s, that’s a fixture).
The much talked about stage set is surprisingly simplistic, trendy screens that wouldn’t look out of place in Tate Modern. But they are largely ineffective in daylight, only really coming into their own during Neon Bible, part of an extended series of encores which features Regine silhouetted against the backdrop of the Neon Bible sign, sending shivers down the spine. She is on particularly good form tonight, acting out every song.
The 18-song show, living up to its ‘Infinite Content’ tour billing is almost symmetrically split between the five albums and there’s something for everyone. Just about all the Arcade Fire standards are included, though several have shifted up the batting order, such as Rebellion (Lies), which comes in at number #2, perhaps slightly too early. Highlights include Here Comes the Night Time, which Win describes as the best crowd dance reaction he’s seen, a gutsy version of Ready to Start and Creature Comfort, which is the most striking of the tracks already released from Everything Now and which has the makings of a classic.
On the flip side Reflektor, as on the album, is too long and even the most committed dancers can’t maintain momentum.
Speaking of which, the audience demographic is fascinating. It is of two bands. Firstly, let’s call it the Up-to-the-Grammy Award generation, mainly older folk, who just want to listen to every note and word. Then there’s the post-Reflektor generation, mainly younger folk, who want to dance manically to everything than can. Fine, except when the post-Reflektors decide to take a vape, drink, chat and laugh, play, and piss-into-a-pot-then-throw-it-around break during Intervention, one of the finest songs ever written (but, sadly, not danceable). It is a song – no, a hymn, that retains a power and majesty of its own and which, on the night, is delivered with even more passion than usual, as if it has dawned on Win and Regine that we’re likely heading into another one pretty soon (Syria, North Korea?)
Arcade Fire habitually does something unusual in Manchester. In 2011 they closed the show with The Suburbs and The Suburbs (Continued); almost unheard of at the time. Tonight Neighbourhood 3 (Power Out) wraps things up and Wake Up is the usual rousing encore finale. But where that would have been the last of it (and was, in London on the previous two nights) Win pops up to tell us, perhaps oblivious to his own irony, that they’re going to play on “until they cut the f***ing power”.
Which takes us into the emotive Neon Bible and Love Will Tear Us Apart; the band departing the stage in the sort of slow procession they used to in the Funeral days, to that mournful flute that pervades Everything Now. OK, so they habitually cover songs appropriate to the city they are in (Blondie and The Ramones in New York, Prince in Minneapolis, Abba in Stockholm…there were 35 covers on the Reflektor tour alone) but this had poignancy about it that everyone connected with the performance will long remember.
It wasn’t a technically perfect set. Early on, both Regine’s keys and her accordion seemed to be out of tune and the sound balance was so bad on Power Out that the guitars disappeared into a wall of indistinguishable noise (and not for the first time), leaving Tim Kingsbury to pick out the bass line on his own like Billy No Mates.
But on nights like this ‘technical perfection’ counts for little and emotion, which was present in spades, for everything.
I got a distinct feeling we’ll be seeing Arcade Fire here again during this tour, and certainly in more like six months than six years. It would be fitting if it were to be at the Arena. I’m sure they’d sell it out.
In the meantime, if they can’t twin Manchester with Montreal now, they never will.