LONDON, ENGLAND* — Beneath transformative flashing lights and a mobile ceiling of mirrors, Arcade Fire staged a breathtaking coup of London’s Earls Court on Friday and Saturday night. The expansive hall was successfully converted into an intimate, contemporary disco club. Following on the heels of Reflektor (Merge, 2013), these two shows were only a small portion of a huge year for the band; by creating a full sensory environment for fans to experience their work and connect to deeper meanings in it, Arcade Fire have gone far beyond a typical tour.
Despite criticism, the band stands firm behind their request that all attendees wear formal dress and or costume to Reflektor tour dates as a means of obliterating discomfort and restraint. Although many either missed the message or refused to comply, those who chose to participate added to Friday night’s carnival-esque aura. The standard for the show was set early, and there was going to be nothing standard about it.
Filling in between acts, 2 Many DJs provided remixes and house beats for the swelling masses of Arcade Fire’s faithful. New Zealand’s Lorde was Saturday night’s opener and referenced Live 105’s Not So Silent Night at Oakland’s Oracle Arena (six months ago, to the day), another instance Arcade Fire had headlined. She called them “the best band I’ve ever seen live.” In retrospect, her set paled in comparison to what unfolded next.
The lights fell; a prerecorded tape began playing. A figure dressed head to toe in a mirror-shard suit emerged on a small stage in the middle of the pit. Then, with the crowd transfixed on this dancing human mirror, Arcade Fire assembled on stage and launched into “Reflektor.” Frontman Win Butler powerfully delivered its opening lines, “Trapped in a prism, a prism of light / Alone in the darkness, the darkness of white / We fell in love, alone on a stage / In the reflective age.”
During the intro of “Flashbulb Eyes,” dozens of hexagonal mirrors lowered over the band while a reflective backdrop moved in from behind – the first attempt to develop intimacy in the cavernous room. After a moment of multi-directional light, a sudden darkness in “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” off Funeral (Rough Trade, 2004) alluded to larger paradoxes of finding light in darkness and uncovering depth in an age of shallow reflection. In “Rebellion (Lies),” the crowd responded thunderously, “Lies, lies!” contributing to Butler’s lyrics “Every time you close your eyes.”
A psychedelic tapestry dropped and a spectrum of colored light flooded in from behind the band as the first chord of “Joan of Arc” struck, marking their return to Reflektor material. “Month of May,” the first taste of Grammy-winning record The Suburbs (Merge, 2010) increased the night’s pace and got everyone moving and banging heads in excitement.
Afterward, Butler addressed the crowd with a message about sexual equality and an emphasis on the value of difference in individual personality, leading into “We Exist.” A cry for acceptance is seen in the song’s accompanying video, which features Andrew Garfield defying gender identification. Its live performance incited a passionate response from the audience as light fixtures and disco balls descended just above the heads of the crowd. Further feeding the emotional flame, a tear-jerking rendition of both parts of “The Suburbs” elicited what Butler cited to be “the loudest crowd response we have ever heard.”
Without hesitation, “Ready to Start” continued the rebellious tone. “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” exposed the raw and unbridled energy in the band’s earlier works that has been channeled, but not lost, in later releases. Following Butler’s consecration of Earls Court as Arcade Fire’s artistic cathedral, a medley of songs from Neon Bible (2007, Merge) including “Intervention” and a vividly sentimental outro of “Antichrist Television Blues” had veteran fans roaring. Backed by a cosmic sky-scape, “No Cars Go” took London deeper into this journey as the duet between Butler and wife Régine Chassagne cast a spell over the room. Butler then explained the band’s commitment to donating a portion of the proceeds from many of their shows to Haiti – inspired by Ophelia Dahl and experiences in the Caribbean – and graced the expecting crowd with a performance of “Haiti”.
Swelling steadily, “Afterlife” oozed beauty and transcended the emotional messages of earlier parts of the set, bringing the room into a sort of glowing calm with ascending melodies. “Its Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” began with an absent Régine singing “Hey Orpheus! I’m behind you, don’t turn around, I can find you, just wait until its over.” As more and more heads turned, Regine rose on the B-stage in the middle of the pit accompanied by skeleton dancers while the rest of the band played on the main stage. With a remixed intro courtesy of Damien Taylor, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” exploded as Regine ran back onto the main stage.
After a bellowing call for more, The Reflektors (clad with paper-mâché heads of the likes of Paul McCartney and Pope Francis) took the B-stage with a tease of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” which Butler answered with a tease of his own on the main stage. Jokes aside, “Normal Person” had all resident hard-rockers thrashing about while the rest of the masses jumped in time. A surprise cover of The Smiths’ “London” was thoroughly welcomed by all.
But the most spectacular point of the night came when millions of pieces of shimmering confetti were shot into the air by wind cannons on all sides of the arena during “Here Comes the Night Time.” As the room filled with these floating particles of light, the audience went into a dancing frenzy, before a soaring “Wake Up” ended the night in a towering peak. Intimacy and communal appreciation flowed amidst the densely packed strangers on the floor and into the seats above as a humbled Butler expressed the band’s profound gratitude to the crowd for their energy and stamina.
The experience that Arcade Fire staged in London was nothing short of awe-inspiring. What unfolded on that stage was a perfectly-conducted production – a theatrical performance, if you will. Arcade Fire has succeeded in drawing a line of similarity between their albums and their shows; the content of their records dictate their showmanship and innovative genius. The band has remained true to their image, sound, and message despite rising popularity and press and this authenticity has survived over the years across outwardly differing albums; it is steadfast, fresh, and crystal clear upon reflektion.
*This summer, The B-Side reports from locations worldwide including Berlin, London, Los Angeles, and Toronto.