Sidney Myer Music Bowl
Wednesday 22 January 2014
Arcade On Fire
It was a hot, balmy night in Melbourne, perfect for Arcade Fire at the Bowl as well as the men’s quarter final of the Australian Open – Roger Federer was playing Andy Murray just over the river at Rod Laver Arena.
There was a friendly, good humoured buzz as fans for both events blended in the city before parting at Princes Bridge to stroll down their respective sides of the Yarra River. Even without the river dividing us, it wouldn’t take a social ethnographer to work out who was going to which event, for although both groups exhibited a certain middle class prosperity – enough that they could each fork out $100 plus for a night out – there is very little crossover in the fashion of hipsters and tennis fans. One set was wearing black denim and some variant of tour t-shirt, while the other opted for chinos or pressed shorts teamed with polo shirts, and the optional extra of a flag depicting the white cross of the Swiss or the Scottish St Andrew’s cross worn as a cape. Plus the tennis fans had better tans.
The Sidney Myer Music Bowl is a large outdoor amphitheatre on the edge of the Botanical Gardens. It hosts free orchestral concerts every year and is famous for The Seekers homecoming show in 1967 that attracted 200,000 people. It is also where ABBA played on their 1977 Australian tour. It is infamous for an AC-DC show in 1980 when people without tickets brought down the fences and there were battles between fans and police. That coupled with complaints about the volume brought about a ban on concerts at the Bowl that lasted more than 10 years.
There is seating for a couple of thousand people at the front and general admission for several more thousand on the lawn behind. From my perspective, you either get a seat at a Bowl gig, or you reconsider going. Not that I mind standing for the show, but I’ve outgrown the early queuing and pushing and shoving required to get a good vantage spot in the general admission area, and worse, keeping it. So I was happy that I secured a seat in the front section for this gig.
All the usual members of my concert cohort were on holidays so I was on my own for this one. Having a seat meant that I didn’t have to arrive early, so I missed the support act, a DJ named Diplo, but I was keen to see Arcade Fire who I had missed on their only previous tour of Australia.
Arcade Fire were here on the back of Reflektor – a sprawling dance oriented double album produced by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy. After the massive critical and commercial success of The Suburbs, which won the Grammy Award for album of the year in 2011 – Arcade Fire were in the enviable, or unenviable position, depending on how you look at it, of having to follow-up a career defining album. Like Radiohead after OK Computer, R.E.M after Automatic For the People, U2 after The Joshua Tree, or Bowie after every album in the 1970s, Arcade Fire elected to follow The Suburbs by changing their sound entirely. This is a strategy that carries some commercial risk but when the band is adventurous enough and good enough, like Arcade Fire and their predecessors, they end up creating another classic. Reflektor is just that – a record that with its emphasis on rhythms is quite different, but every bit as good as The Suburbs and Funeral. Plus it has Bowie doing a guest vocal on the title track.
The lights dimmed, the intro music faded and the familiar bass rumble and percussive keyboard motif of Rebellion sounded to welcoming cheers. Stage lights picked out the members of Arcade Fire wearing oversized papier-mache caricature bobble heads of themselves, as seen in the film clip for Reflektor. The audience were just getting their legs moving and beginning to mouth the words to the song when the show was interrupted by a group of stage invaders wandering on from the wings demanding to know what was going on. Of course it was the actual band members who collected their instruments and shooed away their masquerading dopplegangers.
Public speakers often open with a joke, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a band open a gig with such an elaborate hoax. It certainly set the tone that this was not to be a cerebral, shoe-gazing gig, though given the Caribbean rhythms and dance beats of their latest album, there was never much chance of that anyway.
Once the actual members of Arcade Fire took up their instruments they immediately launched into Normal Person from Reflektor, a rollicking examination of youthful uncertainty, non-conformity and casual cruelty, from which they ripped into Rebellion proper and Wake up, two of the best known tracks from their debut album,Funeral. Both tracks got the audience up and involved, particularly Wake Up’s soaring “Whoa…Hoh!” sing-a-long refrain. They followed this with a trinity of songs from The Neon Bible: an abbreviated, My Body is a Cage, Keep the Car Running and Ocean of Noise.
There were upwards of 10 people regularly on stage (is that a dectet or just an orchestra?) and with roadies invading from various corners between songs, it was nearly as crowded up there as on the lawn. Lead singer Win Butler was the consummate frontman, roaming across the stage wearing a golden jacket and exhorting the audience to join in the choruses.
Even with 10 people, multi-tasking was the order of the day with most members jumping between instruments every couple of songs. I’m not sure whether they suffer from a specialised form of musical ADHD whereby they get bored playing the same instrument for more than one song at a time, or whether there’s some sort of union ruling about job variety they’re required to observe. Perhaps they’re just showing off. Regine Chassagne must have played at least six different instruments during the course of the show, as well as taking lead vocals on Sprawl II and whenever possible, breaking out into 80s dance moves to match the 80s big hair and leggings look she was rocking. At one point she even twirled streamers rhythmic gymnastic style.
In addition to guitars and bass, I counted at least eight keyboards – more than even Emerson, Lake & Palmer could have managed at once – two drum kits and a percussion section, including steel drums. For Keep the Car Running two of them were sawing away at violins, Win Butler was playing a mandolin and Regine Chassagne was playing something that might have been a hurdy-gurdy. Whatever it was, it required regular winding up.
With every song being an indie anthem of sorts, the audience was up and bellowing out the words for each one. It was like a 10,000 strong Glee Club, but with iPhones aloft. Things settled down a bit for The Suburbs – my favourite Arcade fire song – perhaps because it is a more sedate number requiring Win Butler to take a seat at the piano, or because the audience was less comfortable singing its falsetto chorus than shouting out ‘Whoa Ho!’
Afterlife began with the stage awash with swirling white lights, like the Milky Way, or the reflections of hundreds of disco balls. This song afforded the audience another big ‘Whoa-ho’ sing-a-long moment as Butler stood on the foldback speaker holding the mike out to the crowd.
It seemed that every song was a classic; Afterlife and Sprawl II led into the anthemic No Cars Go and the rock-a-billy of Joan of Arc. Then they busted out a cover of INXS’s The Devil Inside with Butler donning his bobble head and miming while guitarist Richard Reed Perry took the lead vocal. I’d rather hear them do one of their own songs, but it was a nice gesture and maintained the mood of uninhibited revelry they had built up. Perhaps they also wanted to make up for Butler’s quip that if it wasn’t for Australians, who would make coffee in Montreal.
The set ended with a Here Comes The Night Time, a carousing, rhythmic Creole number in which a musical explosion at the finale coincided with a downpour of confetti descending on the audience. The excitement the audience displayed at this point showed that it doesn’t matter how hip or sophisticated you are, there are few things as thrilling or intoxicating as a being showered in confetti at a rock show.
Except perhaps the three song encore that followed: Ready To Start, Reflektor and Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out) that ended things in a fittingly raucous manner.
I’ve been to some great gigs at the Bowl over the years, R.E.M. in 1995 and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds in 2003 and 2013, and this was Arcade Fire gig every bit as exhilarating.
Encore: Roger Federer defeated Andy Murray in four sets.
My Body Is A Cage
Keep The Car Running
Ocean Of Noise
It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
No Cars Go
Joan of Arc
Here Comes The Night Time
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Ready To Start
Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)
The photos above were taken by Jodie Meier and were sourced from musicfeeds.com