Arcade Fire, Wembley Arena

2018, arcade fire, arms raisedLondon, Thursday April 12, 2018

Arcade Fire make their arrival marching through the audience, towards a boxing ring in the middle of the round of Wembley Arena. For someone who saw U2 on their Popmart-tour, this entrance seems familiar, but once they’re on stage it sure feels different. While U2 undoubtedly are a great and innovative live band, Arcade Fire feels more alive. Perhaps because there are so many of them, all running around the ring, one moment playing the guitar, next moment banging a drum. Everyone’s very busy and it’s hard to keep track – and that’s part of the appeal. There’s nothing static about this party disguised as a concert.

Arcade Fire has definitely perfected the art of performing arena-sized spectacles. Sometimes when a band uses too many gimmicks, it can feel like it’s trying to detract from the fact that the members are not great musicians or singers. But that’s not the case with Arcade Fire.

The boxing ring works well as a stage in the round of the arena; the ropes stay on for a couple of songs as if to point out that this is a boxing ring where a fight will take place. However, once the ropes are removed after a couple of songs (and the gloves can come off), it’s just a square platform in the middle of a round, where a party is taking place.

2018, arcade fire, boxing ring

I’ll be the first to admit that Arcade Fire’s latest record, Everything Now, is not my favourite, but, to use U2 as an example again, when you’re a great live band, you can tour a less than impressive record and make it work well in your live set. Even songs you don’t care for on record might end up being one of the highlights when you hear it live. This evening though, my highlight is hearing Crown of Love. I actually went as far as to request it on Arcade Fire’s Instagram-page earlier the same day. Though I doubt my request has anything to do with them playing it, it’s still a very satisfying moment when frontman, Win Butler starts singing, ‘They say it fades, if you let it, love was made, to forget it…’

Watching Win’s brother Will, and Richard Reed Parry, both multi-instrumentalists, on stage, is a sight to see indeed. The two of them are probably the most animated members of the band, barely standing still at any time. I wonder if they practice moving around so much, while never missing a beat, or if it just comes naturally to them.

Here Comes the Night Time is a celebration of the night, and Reflektor is a dark exploration of human behaviour. The song works best with David Bowie’s backing vocals, but since Bowie obviously can’t be here, there’s not much anyone can do about that.

2018, arcade fire, lights

Both Win and his wife, Regine, venture into the crowd during the set; Win to sing karaoke style with lyrics on the screen above the stage, and Regine to dance beneath a huge spinning disco ball with those members of the audience who happen to be standing nearby.

The musicianship and showmanship of the band are impressive. Wembley Arena is not a particularly great venue for concerts, and also, a rack of monitors is hanging down at each corner of the stage, obscuring a sliver of the view of the stage. It doesn’t matter so much when just watching the gig, but it becomes evident when I watch the pictures I took of the concert later. But then again, attending a concert is not about the pictures that you take, but the experience that you have, and that can’t be captured or reproduced.

This concert is about inclusion, so it’s only fitting that Arcade Fire has invited a guest to join them on stage for a song. When Jarvis Cocker walks up on the stage he is greeted by a very vocal welcome from the audience. With Arcade Fire as his backing band for the evening, Jarvis sings his song, Cunts Are Still Running the World, and everyone seems more than happy to sing along.

At the end, support act, jazz-brass-band from New Orleans, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, join Arcade Fire on stage for a stunning rendition of Wake Up – a slightly cruel sentiment when you think about it; why tell us to ‘Wake Up’, and then send us home, where most of us are probably going to bed so we can get up for work in the morning?!

Even when the last song is played, the concert isn’t quite over. After all, the two bands have to leave the stage somehow, and what better way to do that, than to play David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel on whatever non-electric instruments each musician have handy, and leave the stage the same they arrived, making their way back out through the crowd, like a Second Line parading through the streets of New Orleans, blowing horns and banging drums, and all of the rest of us clapping our hands and singing our overjoyed hearts out.

Arcade Fire setlist
1. A Fifth of Beethoven (Walter Murphy song)
2. Everything Now (Continued) (Song played from tape while entering the arena through the crowd)
3. Everything Now
4. Rebellion (Lies)
5. Here Comes the Night Time
6. Haiti
7. No Cars Go
8. Electric Blue
9. Put Your Money on Me
10. Crown of Love
11. Ocean of Noise
12. Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)
13. The Suburbs
14. The Suburbs (Continued)
15. Ready to Start (Damian Taylor Remix outro)-
16. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
17. Reflektor
18. Afterlife
19. Creature Comfort
20. Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out) (with Give You Power snippet)
21. We Don’t Deserve Love
22. Cunts Are Still Running the World (Jarvis Cocker cover, with Jarvis Cocker)
23. Everything Now (Continued)
24. Wake Up
25. Rebel Rebel (David Bower cover, with Preservation Hall Jazz Band, played from while exiting the arena through the crowd)

Harry Styles, The O2

Version 2London, Thursday April 11, 2018

Harry Styles is a popular gentleman.
He was in a popular group (One Direction). He seems to be popular among other celebrities. He’s popular on social media. And he’s certainly popular here at the O2 Arena tonight. Scores of people have come to see him. Let’s be honest, mostly females in their teens or early twenties. It’s easy to see why he’s popular. Easy on the eye. Charming. Smiling. A little bit cheeky. Groomed from a young age to know how to say all the right things in public. Never strays into controversial territory. Even the Harry Styles merchandise reminds us to ‘be kind’. ‘Kind’ is now not just something to be, it’s also something to brand yourself as.

Rainbow coloured paper strips
When we sit down in our seats before the concert, some girls pass us a bag of coloured strips of paper. No, they are not hits of LSD – wrong era. The strips of paper are to be attached to our mobile phones, and for a specific song, we are encouraged to switch on the light on our phones and shine the light through our coloured strips of paper. As everyone in each section has different colours, there’s supposed to be a rainbow effect when everyone turns on their camera lights. And it works amazingly well (my compliments to whoever arranged this, which was seemingly not part of the official concert). When the song in question (Sweet Creature) is played later on in the show – Styles on the smaller B-stage rather than on the main stage – the arena lights up in all the rainbow colours, which is not only beautiful but also symbolic of Styles’ very vocal and flag-waving support of the LGBT-communities. A very moving moment. But back to the beginning…

In the last 30 minutes or so before Styles and his band go on stage, an animation of two beringed hands (clearly Styles’) holding a Rubik’s cube, is played on the large screens, and when the hands finally solve all sides of the puzzle, putting all the colourful rows in order, the show can begin.

2018, harry styles, blue screenHarry Styles and band on the main stage

Of course, the noise is deafening when Styles enter the stage, no surprise there. The first two songs are some of his ‘rockier’ songs. He struts and prances and dances around, working every inch on the stage so everyone can get the best possible view of him. Then it’s time for strapping on the ultimate ‘I’m a serious pop star’-prop, a guitar, and demonstrate his strumming skills on Ever Since New York. The setlist of the evening consists of the songs from his debut solo album, a few One Direction songs, a cover song and a song Styles co-wrote for Ariana Grande (Just a Little Bit of Your Heart).

Does anyone ever get surprised anymore?
We also get a couple of new songs, as expected for anyone who’s been following the previous tour dates on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube etc, which it seems everyone has. So of course, both new songs, Medicine and Anna, are treated as old favourites by the audience and are sung along to from start to finish, word for word. Interesting to observe how each generation have their ‘things’, and one of the ‘things’ the current young generation has is, thanks to the internet, not being surprised by anything ever, and having access to know everything they want to know, including the setlist (or at least approximate setlist) of a concert they haven’t even attended yet. At this point in history, is there even anything left to be surprised by?

IMG_3257It’s a colourful view from the B-Stage

Styles launches into an alternative version of the One Direction breakthrough hit, What Makes You Beautiful, and the arena goes bonkers. This brings to mind when Robbie Williams left Take That and included a reimagined version of the Take That hit Back For Good in his live set, as if to prove he could do it better, as long as he sang the song on his terms. I don’t know what Styles thinks when he sings What Makes You Beautiful, but his version does come across as a, ‘I’m a grown up now and I do things my way’-kind of shout out to his fans and critics alike. After playing One Direction’s first hit, it’s time to play Styles’ own first solo hit, Sign of the Times, a song, that, when it came out, was presented by the Styles marketing machine as a combination of David Bowie and Queen. I’m struggling to hear either influence in any of Styles’ songs. If anything, Sign of the Times sounds more like a blend of Angels by Robbie Williams and Hard To Say I’m Sorry by Chicago. Either way, the song works. It’s a beautifully constructed song with a great hook, catchy chorus and good lyrics (‘We never change we’ve been here before…’) that doesn’t set a foot wrong, and Styles’ vocals sound so damn near perfect, it’s hard to believe that auto-tune hasn’t been in use.

For the encore, we get my personal favourite Styles song, From the Dining Table and the, by now, almost obligatory cover of The Chain by Fleetwood Mac. A great cover by the way – easily as good as the original. Styles has really embraced the 1970’s in the styling of his songs, and though he wasn’t even born in the 70’s, it’s a decade that suits him well, from the songs he sings, to the clothes he wears.

The last song of the evening is Kiwi, not a song that does much for me, so I bolt for the door to make it to the train before the rush.

In many ways, this was a perfect concert. There may not be a lot of depth to a Harry Styles concert. He’s not an outstanding performer. His songs are pleasant but no masterpieces and most of them sound like a mashup of some of the catchiest pop hits from the 70’s. Yet everything is done really well; a band that plays the songs perfectly, Styles sounding and looking good in a colourful (pink) and no doubt very expensive outfit. As a frontman, he’s chatty and funny between the songs, saying all the right things, but never anything that could possibly offend anyone. And that’s it in a nutshell; a contemporary pop star who tries to channel the 60’s or 70’s, is problematic. You can style yourself in the right clothes, you can fashion your songs to the right sound, you can learn all the moves and replicate them. But there’s one thing that can’t be repeated. The 1970’s was a time before pop music was irreversibly sanitised, and where it was still possible to be truly controversial and unusual. That’s not really possible anymore, even though all the young crops of pop stars try their best to be ‘different’, ‘mad’, crazy’, ‘unusual’ – they’re all the same normal, slightly boring celebrities, who have gone through the same media training, and post the same carefully constructed pieces of branding on their social media pages – another ‘Sign of the Times’. But though it’s doubtful he’ll ever be a patch on any of his 70’s heroes’ ripped flared jeans, a Harry Styles concert is all good, clean, safe and silly fun – and as Paul McCartney asks in one of his most famous songs (from the 70’s); what’s wrong with that?

Harry Styles setlist
1. Only Angel
2. Woman
3. Ever Since New York
4. Two Ghosts
5. Carolina
6. Stockholm Syndrome (One Direction song)
7. Just a Little Bit of Your Heart (Ariana Grande cover)
8. Medicine
9. Meet Me in the Hallway

10. Sweet Creature
11. If I Could Fly (One Direction song)

12. Anna
13. What Makes You Beautiful (One Direction song)
14. Sign of the Times
15. From the Dining Table
16. The Chain (Fleetwood Mac cover)
17. Kiwi

Luces Verdes, Casa de la Amistad

Version 2Havana, Cuba, Sunday April 8, 2018

While on holiday in Havana, Cuba, I was looking for a concert to go to; something local that wasn’t salsa (which you hear everywhere anyway). I wasn’t aware of any Cuban rock music but like any tourist with an interest in pop culture, I visited the statue of John Lennon in a small park named after him (Parque John Lennon).

IMG_2666Parque John Lennon

When leaving the park I walked past a building with a colourful façade, called Submarino Amarillo (after the Beatles song, Yellow Submarine).

IMG_2697Submarino Amarillo/Yellow Submarine

I went inside but unfortunately, they weren’t properly open yet and I was the only one there. But they were happy for me to have a lemonade and look around the dark room with lots of images of The Beatles on the walls, and on tables etc. While at Submarino Amarillo, I was recommended that I should also visit Casa de la Amistad on a Sunday evening if I wanted to hear rock music. That just happened to be my last night in Havana, and what better way to end a holiday than to see a local rock band?

I arrived early, as I was told it might sell out. About twenty other people were already sitting outside waiting to get in. People were friendly and happy to talk, and one man said he saw The Rolling Stones when they played Cuba a few years earlier, but he preferred ‘harder rock’. Judging by his Metallica t-shirt, I could see why The Rolling Stones may not have been quite hard enough for him. It was nice to see a proper ‘rock crowd’ in Havana where other music genres are bigger and more popular. But, as I found out, rock is definitely also alive in the Cuban capital.

IMG_2878The stage at the back of the garden at Casa de la Amistad

Casa de la Amistad is a huge mansion with a big garden, with a stage set up at the back of the garden. There’s a small bar and tables from where the audience (of about 100 or less) watch the three-four bands of the evening play. I could only stay to see the first band of the evening but I would happily have stayed the whole night.

2018, cuban band, screengrabLuces Verdes at Casa de la Amistad

Luces Verdes is a local band (five males, one female) who play really solid rock and roll. I later read that they often play at Yellow Submarine, playing mainly covers of British and American rock bands. I am later told that rock bands have to mainly play foreign cover songs of bands like The Beatles and Pink Floyd, because owners of the few local rock venues in Havana demand covers rather than original material, probably to please foreign tourists like myself. However, Luces Verdes also played a couple of very good songs in Spanish, that might have been their own songs (I’m not sure), and I would love to have heard more of their songs in Spanish, and less of all these English songs I already know so well. The Anglo-American rock influence is clear, two members of the band wore Nirvana t-shirts and the drummer, besides looking like he could have been a member of The Strokes, wore a Beatles t-shirt.

Luces Verdes have two singers, one female (Deyana Pérez) and one male (Reynier Robles), who also plays the guitar. I must admit there were songs where I wasn’t sure why Pérez was there, and I wished that she had an instrument to play or more songs to sing, so she wasn’t reduced to dancing around. Having said that, when she sang, she sang good, whether it was Venus by Shocking Blue, or Oh Darling, by The Beatles, where she did a good job of screaming out the word ‘DARLING’ just like Paul McCartney does in the original version.

As the band played another Beatles song, Back In the USSR, it was hard not to think of the poignancy of a song written at a time when Russia (or The Soviet Union) was still a communist country, and then, on a Sunday evening in April 2018, a local rock band in one of the only still existing communist countries in the world, covered that particular song. Of all the Beatles songs, why that one? Maybe there was a meaning behind it. Or maybe they just liked that particular song. Either way, they did a good cover of it. 

After Luces Verdes’ one-hour gig ended, I had to leave as I wanted to see Plaza de la Revolución at night (I know, touristy stuff), so as the second band of the evening took to the stage, just after the sun had set, I reluctantly bid Casa de la Amistad goodbye, knowing very well I may never return. But if I ever come back to Havana, I’ll definitely be back for another evening of rock and roll at Casa de la Amistad.

IMG_2942Second band of the evening at Casa de la Amistad, after the sun had set

Plaza de la Revolución at night

Luces Verdes setlist
Not available.