Arenas like The O2 are built for one purpose: to pack in as many people as safely possible. Comfort, atmosphere, and certainly a sense of intimacy aren’t exactly high on the checklist. So musicians capable of selling a small town’s worth of tickets a night have to work extra hard to create the sense of community that live shows are really all about.
Some, like Imagine Dragons, throw money (and confetti) at lavish productions. A few, most notably Nick Cave, spend much of their time clambering on barriers to reach out into various parts of the audience, eventually inviting a select few up onto the stage. Others, like Metallica, play on the arena floor, surrounded by the adoring masses. And then you have Elbow, who leave it all up to one man.
Sure, they have a massive V-shaped video screen backdrop, a giant lighting rig that goes up and down, and two boulder-sized mirrorballs that come out during, yes, Mirrorball. But it’s the outsized charm and likeability of Guy Garvey that truly unites 20 000 strangers. Capable of getting the crowd to erupt simply by stepping to the foot of the stage and rolling up his sleeves, or holding up a beverage, the gregarious frontman has no trouble creating an easy rapport.
“An expression springs to mind – there’s a few in,” he says with mild understatement early on, surveying the not-empty venue. “We’re Elbow from Manchester and we’d like to play you a few songs.”
So it continues, his casual between-song conversation going far beyond the mundane “how are you doing?”. He invites audience participation with gentle suggestions like “express yourself with your arms”, a playful “now, sing it in my accent”, and, after spotting a tight-lipped punter up front, observing “some of us are singer-alongers, some of us aren’t”. He details the origins of songs like Little Fictions, New York Morning, and especially the minimalist Puncture Repair with lovingly told anecdotes that reveal the soul and humour of the man behind the lyrics.
And it turns out, the more you give, the more you get. The fans, apart from Mr Tight Lips perhaps, are just as giving as Garvey. They offer up a ramshackle, but spontaneous, rendition of “happy birthday” (just a day late). There’s a truly enthusiastic, and quite magnificent, response to his request the masses sing as one, far more choir than football chant. And there are frequent calls of “How are you?” from the front rows.
“I’m having the time of my life, if I’m honest,” Garvey replies at one point. And he clearly is, punctuating each song with vigorous pointing, energetic one-armed waving, and that open hand raised skyward in unison with his soaring croon.
That voice, backed by the four other members of Elbow and, frequently, strings and brass, belts out one rousing anthem after another. Most are drawn from the band’s recently released Best Of collection and provide a welcome reminder of just how many sublime songs they’ve given us since 2001.
There are those absolutely everybody knows, like the signature One Day Like This, which, despite featuring in just about every Elbow show since 2008, is still performed with gusto. There are undiminished classics like the angular Any Day Now and geographically inaccurate ripping yarn Fugitive Motel representing their first two albums. And there are live staples in the making like last year’s lovely Magnificent (She Says), made even more so by the flourish of violins provided by Gita and Rosie Langley.
Along the way, they also sprinkle in such minor masterpieces of musical and lyrical complexity as Fly Boy Blue / Lunette (the first half bolstered by Mark Potter’s bluesy guitar chords, and the brassy blurts courtesy of Anna Kirby and Sarah Field; the second half a confection of absolute subtlety).
The Birds slowly takes flight from restrained, mournful beginnings, its jangling guitar riff and minimalist drumming making way for a Craig Potter synth workout, Alex Reeves’ best rockstar drumming, Garvey’s ever ascending voice, and even more strings. It’s a denouement far more powerful than the version on 2011’s Build A Rocket Boys!, not unlike the rendition of Lippy Kids performed tonight. Ramping up the rawness of the verses only amplifies the drama of those gorgeous choruses, while the call and response whistling between Garvey and the London massive is truly something to behold.
Long before a stomping Grounds For Divorce concludes the main set, Elbow, their repertoire of heartbreaking melancholia, and especially that bearded man out front have filled a cold, soulless hangar with warmth and heart. It’s a joy to be included.
Words by Nils Van Der Linden. Photography by Simon Reed. Simon has his own music photography website at: www.musicalpictures.co.uk