The sense of anticipation was quite extraordinary. The second instalment of Electric Picnic was in full flight and everyone seemed to have made their way to the big tent for Arcade Fire. They were among the most talked-about bands of 2005 and they were making their debut in Ireland.
f the atmosphere was off the charts, so too was their performance. The cliché of playing as though their lives depended on it seemed apt. They exuded such energy – feeding off the febrile crowd – that it’s a wonder they didn’t do themselves harm as they flung themselves about with abandon.
It remains one of the great Irish festival experiences – that rare magic when a white-hot band exceeds lofty expectations. When people think of that Electric Picnic – the first multi-day version – it’s Arcade Fire rather than headliners Kraftwerk, Fatboy Slim and Nick Cave who stole the weekend.
Years later, the band would talk about how the 10-song set in Stradbally, Co Laois, was among the favourites of all their shows. It would help establish them in the hearts of Irish audiences and create something of a legend for the fledgling Electric Picnic. I can’t have been the only one to think again about this show last weekend when the 17th edition of the festival had been due to take plac. Sorry to say, the YouTube clips from the performance only hint at how great the experience was.
The Canadian band seemed to be everywhere in the middle years of the Noughties. Their debut album, Funeral, had been released by the small but important label Merge in the US in September 2004, although it didn’t get a proper release on this side of the Atlantic until the end of February 2005, when it came out on Rough Trade.
It was immediately hailed as a classic – and, years later, all those glowing initial assessments remain spot-on. The album may have been inspired by a series of deaths experienced by the band’s nucleus, husband-and-wife pair Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, but the music was joyous. This was chamber pop of the very finest vintage and the sound of a band that had seemingly arrived from nowhere, fully formed.
Everyone wanted a piece of Arcade Fire. When U2 went on the road in 2005 with the Vertigo Tour, they used the band’s ‘Wake Up’ for their rousing intro music on each of the 131 stadium shows. At New York’s Fashion Rocks event, David Bowie performed both ‘Wake Up’ and his own evergreen song ‘Five Years’, with the band. He seemed to be having as much fun as they were.
Fast-forward to 2020 and two members, multi-instrumentalist Will Butler and percussionist Jeremy Gara, are releasing individual albums next weekend. Both should serve as intriguing appetisers until the next Arcade Fire album comes out – and work on it, according to Will’s brother Win, is progressing nicely. Long-term fans will be hoping it’s a return to form after the disappointing Everything Now. With the exception of its giddy track decrying the information overload phenomenon, that 2017 album fell a long way short of the band’s creative high-water mark.
That mark was set with Funeral. According to Metacritic, which aggregates the scores of influential critics around the world, it is the second-highest rated album of the decade, behind Radiohead’s Kid A. It is no stretch to describe it as one of the best debuts of all time.
It’s an album that arrived a few years before streaming changed how we listen to music. While iTunes had been on the block a few years, ‘shuffle culture’ hadn’t yet kicked off in earnest. Just as well, because the brilliantly sequenced Funeral really should heard from beginning to end.
Perhaps the neatest description was supplied by critic John Doran, who wrote that Funeral “is a magical-realist story of young lovers trying to escape the memories of their families, set to an ambitious, string-drenched landscape”.
There’s a wonderful strangeness to songs such as ‘Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)’ and breathtaking energy in ‘Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)’ – the latter was among the highlights of that Electric Picnic show. For unabashed declarations of love, listen to the gloriously overwrought ‘Crown of Love’.
Butler took lead vocals on most of the songs, with Chassange and assorted band members providing backing vocals, but it’s her singing that makes ‘In the Backseat’ so haunting: inspired by her Haitian background, it’s one of the album’s gentlest and most affecting moments.
Win Butler may have grown up in Texas, but relocating to Montreal for university changed his life. Not only did he meet Chassagne there, but the city’s distinct Quebec French culture would inform the band’s music, especially when it came to arrangements.
Although Funeral was self-produced, the band could call on several of Canada’s most innovative musicians for help, including Owen Pallett and Sarah Neufeld. The result was a lush, maximalist album whose self-indulgence only serve to illuminate the tracks, rather than take away from them.
If the early 2000s was all about New York bands like the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol and TV on the Radio, the middle part of the decade saw the spotlight shining strongly on the Great White North. Irish audiences couldn’t get enough of the best Canadian indie bands at that time – I recall a wonderfully rambunctious Broken Social Scene gig at Vicar Street around the time of their self-titled third album, and Stars played a blinder at Dublin’s intimate Sugar Club just after the release of their spirited Set Yourself On Fire album.
Throw in the acclaim that greeted the likes of Rufus and Martha Wainwright and occasional Broken Social Scene member Leslie Feist, and it was little wonder that there was so much attention on Canada.
Arcade Fire threw themselves into touring, but being at the centre of a maelstrom didn’t seem to sit easily with them. An intemperate moment when Butler broke a TV camera at the end of a performance on Jonathan Ross’s BBC chat show – apparently because the frontman had wanted to spend some time with a friend rather than sit in the ‘green room’ with other guests – seemed to capture a band struggling with some aspects of fame. Ross himself would feature on the intro to a future Arcade Fire song, ‘You Already Know’ from the Reflekor album, a record in which the tribulations of celebrity are dissected.
Butler, in particular, earned a reputation as being somewhat prickly with media. While he wasn’t overly talkative when I interviewed him in advance of the band’s second album, Neon Bible, he admitted he was taken aback by the success of Funeral and the demands made of him. Happily, such concerns did nothing to stunt the band’s live prowess – and my second time seeingthem in concert, at London’s baroque St John’s church in January 2007, was almost as transcendent as the first.
They remain one of the great live bands of their generation. There was no post-Glastonbury hangover in 2014 when they played a storming show at Dublin’s Marlay Park a mere 48 hours after headlining the English festival, and their most recent Irish gig, at the 3Arena, in 2018 was the sound of a band striving at every sinew to make the vast venue seem smaller.
And the songs of Funeral continue to colour every live performance – and long may they continue to do so.
Will Butler’s ‘Generations’ and Jeremy Gara’s ‘Passerine Finale’ are released on Friday