I spent over a week mulling over exactly how to start my review of Arcade Fire, who posed as fictional band The Reflektors, when they played live at Glasgow’s famous Barrowlands. At one point I figured I would define ‘gig’ or ‘concert’ and then explain to you why neither of these terms quite fit into what happened on the 16th of November. At another, I thought I would try to analyse the whole “reflection” motif explored by the band and how this had been implemented into their live act. Still flailing about in vain over what to write, I summoned all of my absorbed knowledge about the so called “Greatest Gigs of All Time” lists I have read throughout the years and wondered where this one would slot in. I wanted context and a cap on my enthusiasm. Surely you will not take me seriously if I simply gush and froth about how utterly speechless this live performance rendered me? Well, this is what I have to say:
It was a Saturday evening and I was excited. I went to see Arcade Fire, and it was the best gig I’ve ever been to.
There I said it – “the best ever”. Not, the best gig EVER, just the best I’ve ever been to. Because no matter how many lists NME compile, no one can possibly say any gig was the best in the history of gigs. Here’s the thing though – what’s the point of loving music, and loving writing about music, if you can’t once in a while just say, this was really, truly wonderful? What’s wrong with just being so overwhelmed with how happy music has made you that you can’t help but forget about being a critic and about being a good writer, and just say how it made you feel? It’s true; to call this a ‘gig’ or a ‘concert’ is undervaluing it so unforgivably. It’s true; Arcade Fire haven’t just made an album, they’ve made a whole world which you can hear in the music, witness in videos, read in the liner notes and see on the stage. They’ve achieved what Win Butler described as not just being a series of gigs but instead a weird art project, a carnival of laughter and fun. When I saw Arcade Fire at the Barrowlands, it was a special event, one of those musical experiences that will stay with me forever. It wasn’t just a great gig, it was a whole night filled with amazement and enjoyment.
An atmosphere of celebration and mystery was essential to the success of the night. A masked Win Butler played with a mariachi band in the stairwell of the venue. The band marauded through the crowd wearing what looked like gigantic papier mache effigies of their heads. A solid black curtain hid the stage from view with a simple white projection – “The Reflektors” – advertising the principal act. Disco balls hung from the star emblazoned ceiling and the crowd looked a mix of vagabonds, delinquents and misfits, with others made up to attend an apocalyptic masquerade ball where euphoric music would soundtrack a dance to the death. Everyone had made the effort (except the man in the black, quilted Barbour jacket standing with his arms folded in front of me – shame on you!). Anyone ignoring, or indeed bemoaning, the formalwear or costume mandatory plea (not demand) at these unique events is missing the point and defeating the purpose of why the Arcade Fire have decided to play now (not something they HAVE to do). They want to have fun, they want people to dance and they want people to remember it just like I will.
As the band made their way on stage, I, dressed very specifically as Frank Sinatra at Truman Capote’s masquerade party, surged with anticipation, excitement and adrenaline. Cheers rumbled the old, adored venue as the band made its way onstage. Win Butler shouted from behind the scenes “what the fuck, we’re not supposed to be on till 9, what the fuck is this?” – an audible, but not primary, indicator of why this is more “event” than “gig”. The band themselves – dressed in all manner of weird and wonderful costumes ranging from Braveheart tribute to Caribbean-set, glam rock-inspired Alice in Wonderland homage – appeared, all ready for the midnight dance-a-thon that is their fourth album’s title track, only to be swerved into the ironic mosh-a-long that is “Normal Person”. Mixing it up to the previous night (this band know how to make you feel special), a set front loaded with old favourites like “Wake Up” and “Haiti” evolved into a set which allowed the newer, more complex themes of the latter half to triumph and take precedence, whether it was the dark tragedy of “It’s Never Over”, the euphoric swooning of “Afterlife” or the bassline boogie of “We Exist”. I was overcome by how the entire room danced and sang and enjoyed themselves.
If a band gets up and plays their songs well, that is a gig, and a successful one. To talk of the meticulous placing of songs on the set list, the way the band played and how the venue sounded would be insubstantial in conveying to you why this night was special. It was the little things, things we don’t need at a gig, but that we all within ourselves want to see and hear – the little touches that have made what are essentially warm up shows for a much bigger and comprehensive tour so special. Arcade Fire aren’t just a good and talented band. When I saw them on the stage (my first time) I witnessed a band completely comfortable with themselves, how they are perceived and how they carry themselves at a show. Even though I could physically see how each member gave all of their effort and skill to this gig, I saw a band that did not look like they were performing to a crowd; they looked like they were playing for themselves because they love doing it. In turn, this warmth and familiarity, with each other and with their audience and fans, made the band and the whole event that much more exhilarating. Win Butler professed that he and his bandmates loved playing in that room, and even though I have heard many different bands say the same thing in many different venues, this was the first time I actually believed it.
A rousing rendition of “Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)” ended the show but not the evening. Afterwards, I shook hands with Win as he took on the responsibility of a facemask wearing DJ at the back of the room, continuing the party with more darkly disco anthems from Michael Jackson, The Clash and others. A few days later, I heard that he served drinks at the bar. That seems almost incongruous with the reputation of most huge bands like Arcade Fire. It is the tiniest detail, but along with dancing with the crowd, expressing his love for our city and playing like there was no other gig ever to be had, I can’t help but think: how cool is that?
So here I am, having written this piece. I can’t be satisfied with it. Although, I’m not sure I could ever find prose worthy of explaining my unrelenting emotion that the night I saw Arcade Fire was my single greatest musical experience. Like any good writer, I look to sign off with a sentence or a phrase, something memorable but devoid of cliché, and yet my mind goes blank. Or rather, is filled with the memories of that evening. The truth is, something that is so personally striking and means more to me than perhaps it would to the next person can’t very well be given over to quality writing; I don’t care if these sentences make sense or have the right punctuation. Instead I give it over to my consciousness, letting it stream out on the page like an ink blot of emotions, because ultimately that is how I feel about that night. It really was a gig unlike any other. Much like the Ramones cover that Arcade Fire included that night (allowing space for their heroes on a night of celebration to them), that day they gave us in Glasgow their love, and the next they went on into the world, and I thank them for it.
Photo: I Hate Flash