As a headlining act, the Arctic Monkeys fall flat, but they are still worthy of appreciation.
Arctic Monkeys were the band everyone was supposed to know in 2013, but festival crowds today don’t seem to know what to do with them. They catapulted to mainstream fame with their fifth studio album, AM, which made them headliners on the summer rock festival circuit. They headlined one night of Voodoo in 2014, when they performed to a much more lively, engaged crowd than their 2018 audience.
The band started a whole eight minutes early, which was surprising for a festival that was very strict on their time slots this year, cutting off Janelle Monáe mid-song, exactly at 6:30 on Saturday. The audience wasn’t really prepared for them to start, and people were still straggling in from their past shows. They began with “Four Out of Five,” which is easily the most compelling song off of their new album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, but it was a pretty lackluster start to a show that never gained energy. The second song they played was “Arabella,” which felt like the real opening for the show, with crowds of people rushing in singing along to one of the more popular songs from AM.
This was the pattern throughout the entire show. The crowd clearly didn’t buy their ticket for Arctic Monkeys, but we there because it was the closing act of the festival, and they maybe knew a couple Arctic Monkeys songs that wouldn’t mind being able to say that they saw them live. The band’s discography is now six albums deep, and they spread out their setlist pretty evenly among them. While this is ideal for most headliners who have fans ranging in time periods of interest, for the crowd at Voodoo, it seemed to be a waiting game for the hits from AM.
Arctic Monkeys aren’t built to headline festivals. Their strength is in the construction of their lyrics and albums, not in their star-quality or performance energy. A headliner should be able to rally a crowd of listeners and non-listeners alike, and the members of the band didn’t seem interested in doing that Sunday night. Part of Alex Turner’s image is in his too-cool rock star aesthetic, but that’s always been a bit unconvincing. I think at the heart he’s not built to be a rock star.
As musicians, though, the band doesn’t get enough credit. Their earlier albums are masterful in unique ways, with lyrics that could read as poetry if they weren’t attached to a melody and backed with instruments. Arctic Monkeys have proven their range across their career, from garage rock on Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, an album that lets listeners thrash and scream, to a haunting and witchy third album Humbug which is very deliberate in its construction. The crowd that turned out to see them at Voodoo knew little of this range. Everything pre-AM went unacknowledged by the fans they gained at the time who catapulted them to headliner status. It’s a shame because the artistry on these albums is worth discussion and appreciation.
As a deeply dedicated Arctic Monkeys fan, the crowd's lack of enthusiasm was disappointing, but expected. Arctic Monkeys' performance didn’t warrant any more enthusiasm than it received. I am unsure if it’s because this marked the end of their latest leg of touring, or if it’s because Alex Turner is more of a poet than a performer, but their stage presence fell flat as a headlining act. Band members moved through their songs almost out of obligation, shifting from one to the next mechanically, and they didn’t officially check in with the crowd until after the eighth song they performed.
The crowd started thinning out about mid-way through the set when festival fatigue set in. The dwindling audience sucked the energy out of the remaining audience members, and those who stayed mostly did so to soak up the last minutes of the festival, not because the performance itself was particularly moving. Among Voodoo’s acts this year, it was one of the least engaging performances and a disappointing ending from a genuinely talented band.