When Arcade Fire were announced as part of this year’s Manchester International Festival (MIF17) I was more than sceptical, having seen the mighty Bjork at MIF15, in the very same place, as it would turn out. Bjork was – as expected – brilliant, and I thought nobody could top it. Even as I stood there watching everything unfold, I thought “this is it, there’s no way MIF can ever top this,” and Arcade Fire – as brilliant as they are themselves – were no match for Bjork. It just couldn’t be done. Boy, were we all in for a surprise!
Do you ever get the feeling the Fates don’t like you very much? Two shows clashing with each other, multiple wrong directions, and incomplete maps do not make for the best start to what is bound to be something pretty darn good, for all intents and purposes, despite the previous festival’s outing. According to some of the volunteers working MIF17, there were still people queueing to get in to see Arcade Fire when the band took to the stage, so I suppose arriving over 30 minutes behind schedule wasn’t all bad. At least I wasn’t the only one, right? The entire space they call the Castlefield Bowl (essentially it’s a large scoop of earth cut into the vague shape of a bowl and mostly replaced by concrete) is taken up by swarms of people.
Do you remember the time when Robbie Williams released ‘Angels’? Remember how he barely had to sing it himself, because the crowd basically sang it for him? It was a bit like watching something kind of similar take place, only Arcade Fire aren’t so lazy to actually make the audience sing it for them. But such is the volume – a testament, no doubt, to the love people have for their music – that what happens is the band essentially become nothing more than a backing band to some serious mass karaoke session. Indeed, the band are barely heard over the noise.
Every single hand is skywards, and I would estimate that around 90% of the audience are singing along like their very lives depend on it; the remaining 10% are quietly appreciating Arcade Fire and dancing on the spot. Honestly, I think they could play ‘Wheels On The Bus’ in a continuous loop and the crowd would go crazy. The smoke machine is a touch too much – it’s not like they need to add to the atmosphere – and really, all it does is obscure the view. Unless the whole point is to make the spot lights look cool, in which case, it’s effective. Through the smoke, the red spotlights are made to look like those laser security barriers only seemingly used in major Hollywood films.
And here’s where I have to finally admit defeat on the part of booking Arcade Fire in the first instance. It’s not often I say a band is completely and utterly flawless, but they really are, and with each passing minute I find myself eating more and more of my words. I also have to admit my own prejudices – for want of a better word – about the typical Arcade Fire fan was utterly misguided; people from all walks of life were gathered to watch. Although the crowd are an interesting collective: the couple right next to me spend almost the entire gig taking shit hipster photos of themselves, instead of the band – or even watching the band; if they aren’t taking selfie-snaps, they’re making gooey eyes at each other.
Actually, I think that says a lot about the audience. The teens and twenty-somethings are taking photos of themselves. Everyone else over the age of 30? They’re mostly too busy dancing and singing and drinking cheap beer; those that do have a camera, however, are at least trying to photograph the band through the quite frankly ridiculous amount of smoke, that’s getting worse by the minute. Views hindered aside, this is basically one big dance party.
From somewhere on the smoke-saturated stage (seriously, it’s really hard to tell) come the words: “We wouldn’t even be a fucking band if it wasn’t for the city of Manchester,” and a cheer goes up followed by more than one encore – and more than one nod to Joy Division and New Order. Given recent events in Manchester – and seeing just how close an entire city can get – it appears to bolster the already strong and proud city. Even as an outsider, it’s something special to witness. Once again, Manchester International Festival pulled it off, despite my initial misgivings. I wonder what they have in mind for MIF19?