It’s been thrilling enough to be able to go to any gig this year, never mind a grand reopening starring an arena-filling band at whites-of-the-eyes proximity. The long delayed return of Koko, once the Camden Palace and the site of performances by everyone from Madonna to Charlie Chaplin, generated nuclear excitement levels once it turned out that Canadian soul stirrers Arcade Fire were to be the first name on the schedule.
The band is tactlessly named, given that a major fire was one of a number of factors keeping the £70m refurbishment from completion. Water damage from putting out said fire in January 2020, followed swiftly by the pandemic, also put on the brakes.
As it’s been over three years since it closed, it was hard to remember the old building in enough detail to notice all the changes. The layout of the main theatre remains the same. There are still lots of narrow stairs and roped-off bits for special people, and everything is still very red and ornate. Most striking was a new outside balcony at the front, lined with large plants. The expansion also includes a radio station, a private member’s club, a café at the back and a cocktail bar in the dome, as well as a “fly tower” venue, a tall space rediscovered from the theatre’s earliest incarnation which can host gigs for 200 people.
Lianne La Havas, Pete Doherty and Jorja Smith will fill the main space soon, but they’ll all struggle to follow this. On the verge of releasing their first album in five years, Arcade Fire are currently operating as a nine-piece band, all of whom worked tirelessly to produce a mountain of sound. They were helped throughout by a crowd who knew exactly when to “ohhh” and when to “ahhh” in songs such as Afterlife and Wake Up that piled on the backing vocals.
The last album, Everything Now, saw them faltering a little, thanks to a semi-disco direction that didn’t quite suit and a smug, too obvious “corporations are bad” concept. Frontman Win Butler still has an occasional air of disapproval. He said: “I know I sound like an asshole” on two occasions while trying and failing to get some hush, and ordered the thousands watching the show on a livestream to “go outside when this is over”.
However, the new songs have rediscovered some genuine warmth. The Lightning I was a sweeping expression of commitment between Butler and his wife Régine Chassagne, who occasionally stepped to the front to sing and shoot lasers from her customised gloves and belt. Unconditional I (Lookout Kid) was a breezy strum addressed to their son. When it climaxed with the popping upwards of eight giant inflatable tube men, there were massed grins wide enough to go out the fire exits.
The livestream was turned off for a surprise second encore featuring the first ever performance of their new song End of the Empire, a stately epic that imagines the demise of American cities. It was the final treat of an evening full of them.