30th June 2011, Hyde Park

More like a fully blown festival than a gig, the scene at Hyde Park on the eve of the 30th of June was intimidating to say the least. The biggest headlining gig the band has ever played, Arcade Fire have certainly come a long way from their modest Canadian background. Four huge tents, spread across an entire cordoned off corner of London’s biggest outdoor venue, towered imposingly into the early summer sky and seemed to create an entire city in which we would reside for the next 7 or so hours. It was truly a ‘supergig’ in every sense of the word, and from that first sight of the internal skyline we knew we were in for a treat.

The concert's poster

To tie in with Arcade Fire’s latest album The Suburbs, the whole arena had a ‘Suburban’ theme, complete with huge posters adorning either side of the stage depicting typical outer-city streets, and a whole tent devoted to showing the band’s recent cinematic collaboration with director Spike Jonze, Scenes from the Suburbs. It was great to see a band given such free rein on what they wanted to achieve, in terms of both overarching visuals and key concepts ingratiated into everything the audience could experience: from the set design to the merchandise, from even the food available to the Haiti charity tent that took donations for aid for those still suffering from the disaster of 2010. In one tent, visitors were encouraged to take part in retro-style arcade games; even a full-sized Fußball table was available for a free game before and during the concert. Everything on show encapsulated what Arcade Fire are all about – always aiming for a sense of celebration infused with joie de vivre, complete with great sentimentality when casting attention back to childhood years. They encourage words like ‘freedom’, ‘energy’, ‘independence’ and ‘youth’. It was a wonderful place to be.

The centrepiece of this massive example of mise-en-scene of course was the stage – and what a stage it was. A huge construction flanked by the themed tents, with truly massive sets of speakers hanging from stage left and right. The performing artists were billed from 4.30 till 10.30 on an old-style cinema title board atop the stage, in the following order: Owen Pallett, The Vaccines, Beirut, Mumford & Sons, Arcade Fire. Oh, and a ginormous Arcade Fire logo etched in dazzling red on stark black background emblazoned on either side to top it all off. And so, at 4.30 on a Thursday afternoon (in term time it is worth noting – college was well worth skipping for the journey down), after a three hours on a coach followed by a two-hour train ride followed by a trek across London by foot, bike (surprisingly) and tube, we finally witnessed the show begin.

Owen Pallett, violinist supreme, opened with an interesting set comprised of tunes from his solo work that he has produced tangential to his work with Arcade Fire. The songs were well-structured and he is clearly very talented, but his set suffered from a lack of audience knowledge of him and his music. He was an excellent mood-setter for the evening and he is certainly an artist to look out for in the future.

Next on were The Vaccines, who provided a stonking early evening set, which included all the hits from their first album What Did you Expect from the Vaccines? and more: Blow it Up, A Lack of Understanding, Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra), Post Break-Up Sex and the foot-stomping If You Wanna were all included. The songs themselves advocates of indie rock’s ability to still entertain modern day audiences. The Vaccines have often been labelled a British version of The Strokes, and it seems an apt if limited comparison based on this performance. They, like the imminent Mumford & Sons, were fresh from this year’s Glastonbury and it showed in the vivacity and raucousness of the performance.

American band Beirut followed, and while they may be big elsewhere they haven’t quite made it over here yet. With trombones to boot and songs that sound like a mix between indie rock and ‘Eastern european and Balkan folk’ (from the band’s website) they are the definition of anti-mainstream. Beirut were fantastic fun. Playing to a 60,000-strong audience that they couldn’t have hoped to pull at any other event, they really went for it. You could sense the anxiety present in Zach Condon, the band’s lead singer, at the start of the set, which is understandable considering the sight he was faced with, but as time went on the nerves settled and he became a lot more mellow and relaxed.

The first big hitters of the night were undoubtedly Mumford & Sons, who were greeted on stage with near hysteria from the crowd. In my opinion the crowd was a bit too pro-Mumford, indeed many of the people I talked to were there predominantly for them instead of the main attraction. This was evident from the hordes of fans donning Mumford-styled t-shirts, favouring the English entertainment instead of the clearly superior Canadian latecomers. Not to say the former didn’t impress, which they most certainly did. The folk sound they embody lends itself naturally to a massive audience, and a real sense of unity and togetherness was created as a result. The quality of their performance was staggering, reproducing the sound of their first album almost note for note. It seems testament that their record manages to capture their live persona so well, as that is what Mumford & Sons do best – big sing-a-long folk ballads. Their set sagged in the middle however, with 4 or 5 new songs, which the crowd could do nothing with except stand idly and listen. They are sure to be future hits (indeed the untitled song they played sounded like a beauty) but with the songs only available as live recordings on YouTube the crowd were not familiar with the new samples and couldn’t involve themselves as much as they could in their wider known work. Be that as it may, the band still rocked Hyde Park with the likes of the effusive Little Lion Man and the fabulous Roll Away Your Stone (A full set list is included below). As the end approached, lead singer Marcus quipped ‘Let’s have a hoedown’ before launching into the band’s closer – Sigh No More’s most famous and perhaps most loved tune The Cave.

And so it was, after 4 hours of standing in front of the same stage, itching closer with every break in the hordes of fans we could see, that Arcade Fire finally made their entrance. The main attraction was greeted with rapturous applause and multitudes of screaming fans, the cue being a film clip on the big screen from their tie-in movie project. Opening with Ready to Start from the new album, the band announced their intentions immediately, throwing themselves into the occasion with no sense of reserve or even hint of fatigue after their exhaustive world tour.

Front-man Win spoke to the crowd as if greeting old friends, and explained hastily that the next song was intended to be played later in the evening but he ‘fucking wanted to do it now’. The song of course was the anthemic Wake Up, the band’s biggest crowd-pleaser, and its placement so early in the set proved to be contentious. I agree with what seems to be the majority on this: they played it way too early. It is best suited as a closer, but it is still one of the best songs of the past decade and that was not taken away at least. Win justified his impulsiveness by saying: ‘We wanted to play this while we could still see you!’ I suppose I’ll forgive him.

Over the course of a near two-hour set, the band opted to play 7 songs off their first album, a surprise choice but a good one – if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and live versions off the Funeral album sure ain’t broke. The Neighbourhood’s in particular were spine-tinglingly awe-inspiring; a real treat for any fan of the effervescent 8-piece. A surprise inclusion was the band’s previously unreleased version of Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues (sparking wild rumours of a David Byrne guest appearance which were, sadly, baseless), which served to make our night unique and a truly rare occasion, if it needed another reason. Butler casually remarked after the song:

“That was the least time we’ve been scared doing a song we’ve only really played in rehearsal to 60,000 people, so thank you so much.”

Husband and wife rock out on stage

Personal highlights included Intervention from the band’s second album, Neon Bible, and the improvised speech section in the middle of Month of May from the band’s latest offering. Butler raved about how the ‘rich people’ around Hyde Park wanted us to turn the noise down, and urged us to scream out in protest. It was an invigorating moment. This incidentally marked a turning point in the set’s focus, which up until now had been somewhat meandering (if beautiful), and produced an adrenaline inducing climax. In an act of genius the band blended the end of Month of May into the intro of Rebellion (Lies), and the effect on the crowd was electrifying. This is what Arcade Fire are all about: creating a ball of energy that seems to consume the whole crowd to a point of euphoria, and the next song choice of Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out) only served to amplify this effect. The announcement that this would be their last song was greeted with actual booing, so caught up in the moment was the crowd that they didn’t want it to end. 2 hours absolutely flew by.

An encore was inevitable and was greeted with similar scenes of furore. The closing three songs came as close to perfect as a live band is possible to come. Keep the Car Running, a great optimistic powerhouse of a song that lifted and enlivened a tiring crowd, Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels), which provoked memories of blissful childhood like no other song could hope to do, and the unequivocal, evocative, electrifying, stirring, heartbreaking, ghostly, hauntingly brilliant Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), performed by Win’s infallible wife Regine who donned multicoloured tassles that she thrashed around throughout her virtuoso performance. Echoes of The Suburbs most anthemic song stayed with us as we untangled, dazed, from our fellow crowd members and made our way to the exit.

One critic, forgive me I’ve forgotten who, once said of the band: ‘If you still don’t believe in magic, go and witness Arcade Fire live.’ And I don’t believe that there has ever been a truer word said of them.

Mumford & Sons

  • Roll Away Your Stone
  • Little Lion Man
  • Winter Winds
  • White Blank Page
  • Timshel
  • Thistle and Weeds
  • Awake My Soul
  • Dust Bowl Dance
  • New song – Below my Feet
  • New song – Hopeless Wanderer
  • New song – Untitled
  • New song – Lover’s Eyes
  • The Cave

Arcade Fire

  • Ready to Start
  • Wake Up
  • No Cars Go
  • Haiti
  • Rococo
  • Intervention
  • –Speaking in Tongues–
  • Crown of Love
  • The Suburbs + The Suburbs (cont.)
  • Month of May
  • Rebellion (Lies)
  • Neighbourhood #2: Laika
  • We Used to Wait
  • Neighbourhood #3: Power Out

Encore

  • Keep the Car Running
  • Neighbourhood #1:Tunnels
  • Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

NB. The set lists produced here are from memory – the order may not be exact but I’m pretty sure all the songs performed are here.