Given that they headlined the closing night of Coachella in 2014, it was a double surprise when Canadian indie rock titans Arcade Fire were announced as a last minute addition to the bill for the Mojave Tent on Thursday (14 April) – a day before the California music festival kicked off.
A double-whammy, there was, firstly, shock that they were playing at all, and second that they would be appearing in a relatively intimate setting.
An eager crowd of thousands are still squeezing their way into the tent as the seven-piece band enthusiastically bound onto the stage five minutes early, so hearts are in mouths when frontman Win Butler halts proceedings after just a few bars of their opening song to urgently call for a medic for someone in the front row. Thankfully help arrives swiftly and soon the band launch back into their recent Nigel Godrich-produced single “The Lightning I, II”, with Butler’s longtime partner Régine Chassagne bashing away at her keyboard behind him, as their voices come together in a hymn to sticking it out and sticking together.
Butler, who celebrated his 42nd birthday on Thursday, is clearly thrilled to be here. The band transitioned seamlessly from their new material to a full throttle run of indie disco anthems. “Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)” is followed by “Rebellion (Lies)”, and the crowd keep ooh-ing the melody long after the band have finished playing it.
After an exuberant “Ready To Start”, Butler takes over at the keyboard with Chassagne moving back behind the band’s second drum kit. “Thank you so much, we’re so f****** happy to be here,” says Butler. “We first played here in 2005 when we were children. Now we’re not children. Things change, but you can’t let change wear you down. It’s okay.” That’s the lead-in to “The Suburbs”, a song which seems to have taken on extra resonance after the last two years of dealing with unprecedented social change.
“Sometimes I can’t believe it,” sings Butler, as crowd joins him. “I’m moving past the feeling.”
It’s a moment of catharsis which is quickly followed by one of pure joy. During “Afterlife,” Butler clambers down off the stage and hops into the audience to crowd-surf, which he manages impressively while still singing without missing a word or a beat.
Outside the tent, the sun is setting but, inside, Arcade Fire are just warming up. The stage falls dark for another new song “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)”, which like opener “The Lightning I, II” is taken from their forthcoming sixth album WEdue out next month.
As the set reaches its emotional peak another new song “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)” sees the band back at their euphoric, heart-pounding best after the more meandering Everything Now in 2017. As the band play, eight multicolored, inflatable figures of the kind you often see on garage forecourts spring up from the stage. It’s a fun gimmick, but the green one at the center stage has some kink in the fabric and won’t stand up fully. A stage hand runs on, pulls him down, and then the crowd roars as he stands fully upright – an impromptu metaphor for triumph over adversity.
Arcade Fire close with a monumental version of “Wake Up”, after which the crowd is already drifting out when Butler picks up the mic and restarts the chorus. He clearly doesn’t want to leave the stage, and who could blame him?
Performing at Coachella is not a bad way to spend the day after your birthday.
Follow live updates on the Californian music festival here.