01 February, 2008

ocean of noise

Murky, garish, slightly overexposed - television footage of a shrill televangelist is projected onto the painted backdrop of enormous, dark red organ pipes. It's hard to make out the woman's words, but her tone is overpowering: raucous, impassioned, bordering on comically histrionic. A sign of things to come. As their Neon Bible symbol is illuminated high above the Forum Theatre's stage (which contains - among other things - more than fifteen different guitars waiting in racks, keyboards and synths, a xylophone, a black double bass, a piano accordion, a hurdy-gurdy and two megaphones mounted on mic-stands) Arcade Fire stride into view, unleashing a skin-tight rendition of "Black Mirror", and launching this particular atheist into the closest thing to a sacred epiphany he is ever likely to experience.

This is the third performance by a live band I've seen in less than a month. Both previous shows were brilliant (Kings of Leon and Sufjan Stevens, for anyone wondering). But - to labour the religious awakening metaphor just a little longer - if those concerts were like witnessing key sermons from two of the best preachers in the land, Arcade Fire's gig was like being present at the Sermon on the Mount.

Arcade Fire are seven permanent members and three touring musicians, centred around Win Butler (droll and physically imposing, he is a pillar of barely-contained intensity; he seems constantly on the verge of hurling his instrument or himself off the stage, as if he wants to physically destroy the invisible wall between himself and the audience), his wife Régine Chassagne (a mischievous pixie from another world, intrigued and exhilarated to find herself in a human rock-band; she sings at the top of her lungs even when not at a mic, and breaks out some awesome interpretive dance moves), and his brother Will (a force of nature who is drenched with sweat by the second number; he bangs cymbals literally until the drumsticks shatter, and hurls himself around the stage with an explosive energy that recalls the Tasmanian devil character in old Warner Bros cartoons).

I have quite simply never seen a group of people give so much of themselves in a performance. But the band-mates' constant instrument-swapping, manic movement and unbridled, almost cathartic ardour, all belie the precision and discipline with which the songs from Funeral and Neon Bible (as well as a few obscurities) are rendered. Although the activity on stage has been accurately described as organised chaos, the music Arcade Fire create live is no cacophony. And while they are clearly having a ball, this is by no means a bunch of people making noise for their own amusement. Their passion is utterly contagious; the audience are part of the chaos, and they love it.

The main set comes to an end with "Rebellion (Lies)". As the crowd throws the chorus's "Lies! Lies!" refrain back at the band, Chassagne grins from ear to ear as if this is exactly her desired reaction to the song. During the coda, the entire audience takes up the wordless backing vocal part, and continues singing it as the band make their farewells and disappear backstage. The applause and cheering mount, and the communal melody only gets stronger. The frenzied converts are calling Arcade Fire back to the stage with their own mantra. Suddenly, something strange happens to me. My breathing fits and starts. There are tears on my face. I am weeping. Sobbing! Why? I have no idea. Realising I am surrounded by strangers, I pull myself together in time for the band to retake the stage and bring us home. The crowd are still singing the final strains of "Lies" as Arcade Fire begin their encore.

During "Wake Up", the grand finalé, Win Butler breaks free of the stage at last, and steps out onto the security fence that separates band from crowd. He teeters there, held up by the hands of his followers. He screams the final line: "You'd better look out below!" and lets himself fall into their adoring arms.

As the masses slowly filter out of the Forum, the most common word I hear is "amazing". Oft overused, it's genuinely applicable this evening. I also hear a lot of "That was...", "They were just...", people trailing off, unable to express what they have been made to feel. For my part, even after seven paragraphs, all I can really say is: Arcade Fire are without a doubt the best live band I've ever seen. I now wish I hadn't foolishly bought only one ticket and come by myself. I wish I had dragged along every friend I have, every person I love, so we could have all shared this together.

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