Sometimes it’s nice to be proved comprehensively wrong about something. The first time I saw Elbow, I was ambivalent at best. Dragged by my wife to Wembley Arena (quite possibly the worst place in London to see live music), it turned out to be one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. It seems she has great taste in all things.
The anthemic nature of a song such as One Day Like This deserves to get the enormodome treatment but the most striking element to me of the live Elbow experience was the remarkable raconteuring of Guy Garvey – a man who managed to make an engagement in a warehouse of over 12,000 people feel like a trip down the pub with one of your best mates.
The diametric of Wembley, O2 Shepherds Bush Empire is one of my favourite places to see a band. Seemingly taller than it is deep (and certainly than it is wide) the tiers extend up and up, the level of architectural splendour multiplying the higher you climb. With a capacity of 2000, you’re not going to see Elbow here, but luckily for Garvey fans he has just released his first solo album Courting The Squall and this was the second of his UK dates promoting that record. To see him perform in the comparatively bijou environment that is the Empire was always going to seem really intimate, and so it proved to be.
Before he came on, I heard an audience member close to me saying he was looking forward to Garvey playing plenty of the Elbow back catalogue. Not so, and it really was a flight of fancy to think that the front man would resort to making this an evening of Elbow lite with a different band. What would be the point of that? Instead, whilst there were a few tricks employed to pad out the show, we were treated to the new album played in its entirety. And just to hammer home that this was an evening of new music Courting The Squall was played sequentially – bar for Three Bells; last track on the album, the haunting melody of which was the backdrop to the band one at a time taking the stage. Garvey was last of course and appeared brandishing a pint of stout and beaming smile.
Before we got too much further into it, Guy was gassing with the crowd. We’re introduced to the band. Drummer Alex Reeves apparently likes to be called “Reeeeeeeeves!” and we’re encouraged to shout that whenever he starts a song. I’m sure he liked it really. Our first opportunity to do this was for Harder Edges, one of my favourites from the album and notable if for no other reason than because it contains the line “She was capable of kind, but not inclined”. Love it. My other favourite from this opening section was Electricity; a song of smoky late night jazz crooning that on the album is a duet with American singer Jolie Holland. Garvey tells the crowd he wrote it knowing it could be performed solo because he’d be “too tight” to fly her out to tour with him.
Guy has surrounded himself with who he terms “the best musicians outside of Elbow”. There’s clearly a great camaraderie between them, none more so than with I Am Klute bassist Pete Jobson, who contributed guitars and some keyboards tonight. In a particularly touching moment Garvey and Jobson exchanged a few old war stories before the latter played a couple of whimsical songs of his own: Just Cos I’m Dead and Holiday. This was the most obvious bit of padding in the show and at times it felt more like ‘An Audience With…’ than a conventional gig, but when you’ve got people as charismatic as Garvey and Jobson chatting away, nobody seems to care. The ‘special guest’ theme continued when Elbow guitarist Mark Potter came on and played a cameo (although we had already seen him in the support band The Plumedores) in the only nod to Elbow tonight, a beautiful rendition of Great Expectations from the 2005 album Leaders Of The Free World.
The full band then returned to the stage and closed out with Belly Of The Whale and Broken Bottle And Chandeliers; the former a big on horns barnstormer of further jazzy tendencies and the latter a reflective heartbreaker. The crowd was encouraged to sing the melody, with each of the multiple tiers taking a different harmony part. It was a great way to finish.
For an encore we got a rendition of The Ink Spots’ 1941 hit I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire and then a second blast of the evening for the single Angela’s Eyes. This felt like the sort of trick to which a sixth-form garage band might resort and was the only part of the evening that didn’t quite ring true. But what the hell do I know? I’m not Guy Garvey and he does seem to be doing pretty well on his own.
Guy Garvey Live at Shepherds Bush Empire 1st & 2nd December 2015.
Photography and Review by Simon Reed. Check out his live pictures website here: www.musicalpictures.co.uk