Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire @ Utility Arena Birmingham, 2nd September 2022

Arcade Fire

These are turbulent times for fans of Arcade Fire. It is not often that questioning whether to attend a gig becomes a moral issue, but all this week as the allegations and apologies concerning Win Butler were published, you inevitably ask yourself where do you stand regarding predatory behaviour in rock stars and their abuse of power… and whether this is sexual misconduct or sexual abuse, and if it isn’t either of those, does it actually expose a successful musician’s misogynistic attitudes and their sick sense of entitlement when it comes to satisfying their libido or inflating their ego. The internet is of course swirling with opinions for and against Win Butler, with some fans choosing to boycott the tour altogether and others asking for the shows to be cancelled so they can receive refunds. Support act, the supremely talented Feist issued a statement a day before the Birmingham gig, stating after wrestling with her conscience she will now be going home (having already played the Dublin dates earlier this week). Her comments were open to interpretation regarding the actual allegations, but her decision to not play with Arcade Fire any longer on this tour said more than her official statement ever could. Despite Arcade Fire not giving a specific response to Feist quitting, the tour carries on undeterred, but it can only have caused a massive strain on everyone involved with the band, to lose someone as highly respected as Feist. It is quickly apparent though during their energetic and awe-inspiring set in Birmingham, that if there is a strain at all, the band are not showing it.

Furthermore, if there is any confusion or soul-searching in the audience they also don’t voice it and as Arcade Fire appear in the unseated stalls area of the arena to climb onto the additional stage in the round half way from the main stage, the roars must have been a huge relief to the musicians, knowing those who chose to attend are with them from the start. The opening song “Rebellion (Lies)” from their 2004 debut album with its insistent drum beat and rousing chorus lifts everyone and as it is the first time the song has opened their 2022 set, it is a strong statement to make: “Every time you close your eyes (Lies, lies)”. I can’t say whether this is a deliberate move, but it seems likely.

As the song comes to close, the whole band move from the centre stage through the crowd, to the main stage, which initially had been lit as a proscenium arch but soon changes to half of the eye from the cover of the new album “WE”. As well as the flawless performance from the band, special mention has to be made to highlight the lighting and video effects, including projections, lasers and even inflatable tube people. The camera work also picks up intimate moments on the giant screens for those at the back – it is a visual treat.
For the opening run of songs the abuse allegations are still foremost in my mind and I concentrate on body language between band members and particularly between Win and Regine, but there is nothing to suggest the week’s news has left any doubts in their minds that Win has committed a crime greater than mis-reading the advances of over zealous fans. There is reference to the online facade we all use in social media and the relationship between artist and consumer in ‘Age of Anxiety I’ when Win sings: “When you look at me, See what I want you to see, What I want you to see.. is me”.

Arcade Fire play almost all of the current album and the material is clearly as strong as ever, as the audience is with them the whole time, there is no obvious difference in energy levels between the new and old songs. Their earlier work does not take a backseat, but it is clear that ‘The Suburbs’ finds most favour in tonight’s set as the other albums only have a couple of tracks played. It is also interesting to see that the setlists change from night to night.

The absolute highlight for me is the masterful “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” with Regine’s vocals soaring through the cavernous barn that is the Birmingham Arena. Her presence, energy and stunning voice fills the space like nobody else can. When Regine is not singing lead, she moves around the instruments depending on the song; from piano, to accordion and then synth to drums. Along with the other remaining members of the band they keep the audience moving all night, with hardly any breaks between songs. Win does thank everyone for coming a couple of times but that often just feels like a standard rock band cliche, rather than specifically about some fans wanting the tour cancelled: “Thank you (checks notes).. Birmingham.. you have been the best audience of the tour”… which is repeated the next night, with the names changed ad nauseam. The more gigs you see the more you realise this is generally just scripted.
Case in point is the encores, where again the band waves goodbye after a storming funky version of ‘Everything Now’ (with mirror ball throwing hundreds of light beams around the arena evoking discos of old), only to reappear again minutes later after applause and screams for more at the centre stage. These are not encores if they are part of the planned set! Anyway, my grumblings out of the way, the renditions of ‘End of the Empire I-IV’ are spellbinding. It is a perfect mixture of beautiful songs and the image of the band surrounded by an enormous show of support from their fans.. even if it is at the end of the American empire.

I will also mention that they also play a different cover version each night, and Birmingham are given the Verve’s ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ – not a song I ever liked particularly but I guess it sums up where Arcade Fire are this week. Although when Win sings: “You know I can’t change, I can’t change. But I’m here in my mold” you feel like he will need to change if he wants to win back some of the fans that are not buying his ‘sorry not sorry’ statement. The set ends with a triumphant and anthemic ‘Wake Up’. It is a glorious closure and the crowd sing loud and long into the night. However, maybe Win needs to take on board his own words now: “Children, wake up. Hold your mistake up.”

There are powerful and poignant moments throughout the set, which I guess stems from the band’s knack of summing up complex emotional situations in songs. And tonight under the current circumstances their lyrics ring more true than ever. In ‘Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)’ Win sings: “No one’s perfect. Let me say it again: no one’s perfect. Right” and then in ‘The Lightning I’ there is almost a heartfelt call to arms when he pleads: “We can make it if you don’t quit on me, I won’t quit on you, don’t quit on me.”

And this is the important aspect of Arcade Fire’s work and by association the band themselves – the honesty and fragility. Win often sings like he is breaking inside with emotion, and that performance is compelling, even more so when you are in the same space. It creates a strong connection between artist and listener, and the listener surrenders much of themselves to be a part of it. The body of work created by Arcade Fire has a depth to it beyond just pop songs, and their audience feel that – so this is about integrity and a feeling that the music is real. The music does not feel superficial and the performances feel true and full of commitment, so in light of the allegations that hang over the tour, as a fan of the band you have to ask whether it is possible to separate the art from the artist. Are Win’s actions and attitudes at odds with the band’s ethics or is the whole Arcade Fire righteous image pure artifice anyway? As difficult as it is, the image is cracked and we may have to accept that the music is flawless, but the musicians are flawed. If Arcade Fire continue, there is no question these questions and doubts will hang over them.

Regarding the issues surrounding Win’s sexual misconduct and our position as fans, I read on Twitter after the gig a really important point (thank you @luxuriousflava): “At what stage does the reason of “he had this power over me” because of an unhealthy fandom, does the problem become one-sided? If anything, there should also be a discussion about the world we live in where obsessive fan culture should be addressed as an unhealthy feature of modern society. When there are sentences from a consenting fan that say “yes it was consensual, but…” there needs to be serious discussion about why there is a “but” when it comes down to consent. It either is or isn’t, and regretting something which was previously consensual does not constitute “abuse”. It is an admission of regret.” As consumers of popular music we have to understand Arcade Fire’s line: “It’s all about you (It’s not about you)” – this duality can be confusing. Yes it is a contradictory statement on purpose, and ‘you’ could be about the singular listener or all of their fans. A fan has to be able to navigate this emotional, lyrical minefield and accept the world is not revolving around them and there is no personal connection except the fabricated one they bring themselves.

Incidentally John Lennon spoke to a fan in his film ‘Imagine’ and said: “Don’t confuse the songs with your own life.” The fan replies sadly: “You weren’t thinking of anyone in particular when you were singing that song?” John says: “How could I be? How could I be thinking of you? I’m thinking of me. I’m singing about me and my life, and if it’s relevant to other people’s lives, then yeah, that’s alright.” I guess the issue is that as megastars, they have to be the ones to set boundaries even if that means having no connection at all to protect vulnerable people.

Clearly, these allegations are still in the Twittersphere and this will not disappear quickly – it could play out long after this tour is over. It is difficult to predict how this will affect Win’s relationship with the band, the fans and most importantly his wife and child. On the evidence of tonight’s incredible performance I only hope that all those personally affected will find closure and support.

Arcade Fire Setlist

Rebellion (Lies) (all on centre-stage)
Age of Anxiety I
Ready to Start
We Used to Wait
Half Light I
Afterlife (Win in the crowd, then on centre-stage)
Creature Comfort
Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)
The Lightning I
The Lightning II
Keep the Car Running
Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)
The Suburbs
The Suburbs (Continued)
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) (Régine in crowd for part of song)
Everything Now

Encore: (all performed on centre-stage)
End of the Empire I-III
End of the Empire IV (Sagittarius A*)
Bitter Sweet Symphony (Verve cover)
Wake Up

Review and photographs: Alan Neilson



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