The Big Listen: Arctic Monkeys – Live At The Royal Albert Hall
Alex Turner seems to draw out the words with particular relish, savouring the irony as he sings “I’ve played quiet rooms like this before,” seven songs into a triumphant greatest hits set at a cacophonous Royal Albert Hall. When it comes to droll one-liners, nobody does it better than the Arctic Monkeys frontman.
Sheffield’s finest are a consummate live act, and this 2018 recording, released in aid of War Child UK, is a faultless 90-minute return from a band who previously hadn’t played live for four years. War Child UK exists to protect, educate and rehabilitate children who have experienced the horrors of conflict, and two years on from this show, which raised £250,000 on the night, an already grave situation for endangered kids across the globe has only been worsened by COVID-19. You’d be hard pushed to find a more worthy cause right now.
Striding on to the stage less than a month after the release of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, a record that divided opinion with its languid tempos, lounge-pop surrealism and chin-stroking irony, predictably enough the Monkeys kick off with that album’s decadent lead single, Four Out Of Five. It’s led here on piano and acoustic guitar, although when Jamie Cook kicks in his fuzz pedal, the lofty expanses of this grand old hall fill with the heavenly serrated bark from his ES-335. After the ubiquity of the white Strat he played in the band’s early days, Turner’s main guitar throughout the show is his sunburst American Vintage Jazzmaster, and it too sounds glorious.
While so often live albums can be stripped of the raw energy and ambience present in the room, the challenge of capturing the full force of the Arctic Monkeys in the Albert Hall’s vast acoustic space has been absolutely smashed out of the park. Drummer Matt Helders comes thundering in at a furious pace on second song Brianstorm, Cook’s scintillating burrowing riff chanted back lustily by 6,000 ballot-winning ticket holders as Turner chops out the chords. He pauses only to milk a theatrical introduction of “We are the Arctic Monkeys from High Green, baby” and it’s clear the time away from touring has not dulled their appetite.
Jamie Cook of Arctic Monkeys. Image: Santiago Bluguermann / Getty ImagesChoosing not to lean too heavily on the piano-heavy new record is a sound call, but when those songs are dropped in they provide well-timed respites from the relentless barrage of hooks and riffs. Turner is masterful at pacing a set and he’s also evidently relishing the opportunity of the band’s second Albert Hall appearance, slipping readily into Vegas crooner mode between songs. The ringing arpeggios from his Vox Starstream XII glint seductively from a simmering, surfy version of Crying Lightning, but it’s outshone by AM’s sultry lead single Do I Wanna Know? The response to one of the most memorable riffs of the past decade is euphoric.
We’re reminded, too, of how far the band have travelled stylistically across their six No 1 albums. Contrast the Josh Homme-piloted sleezy riffing of the AM songs with the brooding minor-key 505, often saved until the encore, but dispatched within the first 20 minutes here. Turner’s mournful organ tones are accented by Cook’s bittersweet raked chords, and the descending solo sounds enormous, dripping with the finest slapback delay. Different again is Cornerstone, the high point of 2009’s Humbug, hopelessly romantic and slightly low-key in this incarnation. Turner sings the first verses largely unaccompanied, teasing it out patiently as the list of fictional pubs of his youth unfurls, then handing the stage to Cook for its wistful solo, the crowd piling in for its closing pay-off of “You can call me anything you want”.
Knee Socks sees another of the band’s infectious singable riffs hit home, lathered in fuzz and absolutely irresistible, Turner sliding into falsetto for the refrain of “Like the beginning of Mean Streets you can be my baby”. Cook’s soloing on AM’s Arabella is exquisite before a pair of newies give the crowd the opportunity for a breather ahead of a first airing of From The Ritz To The Rubble since 2011.
The audience are, of course, firmly in Turner’s grip by this stage and after uttering, “don’t believe the ‘ype”, a wry callback to 2006, his lead playing on I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor is as thrilling and unbridled as it was 14 years ago, the crowd almost drowning out their heroes in the chorus, evoking the sound of a thousand indie discos.
They get slightly sloppy towards the end of The View From The Afternoon, the opening track from that faultless debut, but no one cares one iota. The job is already done, an immaculate return to live action ends with a muscular demolition of RU Mine? from AM, Arctic Monkeys’ status as the nation’s premier live band secure. There’s not a weak song on this exceptional live record, and the charitable cause is absolutely vital. You know what to do…
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