I’m grateful to my wife for so many things. She spots the traffic cameras I don’t. She’s always on hand with salient fashion advice. Her meringues are the stuff of legend. And then there’s Elbow.
The first time I saw this band was in 2012 when they were touring Build A Rocket Boys!. I was quite churlish about it. My wife, a long-term fan dragged me there, but I just knew it wasn’t going to be very good. The traffic was awful. We had crappy little seats at the back of crappy big Wembley Arena. The sound was average. It was one of the best gigs I’ve ever experienced.
That night a light bulb was switched on in my head. I came to realise that music I’d written off as melancholic drone was actually something much, much more than that, and it certainly warranted further investigation. We’ve seen Elbow many times since, and this final night at Hammersmith is my second of three shows this year (we were here yesterday and we’re sampling one of the Elbow Forest Live dates in the summer).
The music is glorious but the revelation at my first Elbow gig was the role undertaken by face of the band, Guy Garvey. If there’s a more charismatic, charming and entertaining frontman knocking about anywhere, I’d like to know where he is; and anyone that can turn a hole like Wembley Arena into a warm and welcoming place as he did must be bordering on genius indeed.
It helps that Garvey possesses a voice as thick and creamy as the pints of beer he always brings on stage. As he arrived out front tonight in the altogether more pleasant environment of the Apollo, he held his glass aloft and the crowd went bonkers; albeit in an understated, sophisticated, Elbow kind of way.
Garvey’s patter was expertly delivered between songs and a cynic might conclude that it’s all a little bit too good, a little bit rehearsed; except that it isn’t. No two Elbow performances I’ve seen have ever been remotely the same and last nights’ conversations with the crowd and introductions to songs bore no relation to those of tonight. It probably helped that tonight was Garvey’s birthday and much of the chatter revolved around this. Support act C Duncan handed a giant card for the front rows of the audience to sign and the rest of Elbow played a round of Happy Birthday as we left the photo pit.
Elbow’s tale of slow-burning success is well told – years of indifference from the mainstream before the 2008 release of Mercury Music Prize winning The Seldom Seen Kid propelled them into the arenas. The band are touring their latest album Little Fictions and these days the lyrical content is refreshingly upbeat. Garvey married actress Rachael Stirling in 2016 and the couple are expecting their first child any time soon. But 2016 was a year of mixed fortunes for Elbow as long-standing drummer Richard Jupp quit the band. Garvey stated at the time that Jupp couldn’t be replaced and accordingly, they didn’t try.
The four-piece that is now Elbow started the night with Gentle Storm, a song from the new record that fittingly relies very heavily on programmed drum loops. They performed it from in front of a curtain that concealed the other members of the touring band. By the time The Bones Of You came along, the curtain had gone and the full band was revealed. We were soon introduced to Jupp’s replacement for the tour, drummer Alex Reeves. A chant of “Reeeeves!” was encouraged every time his name was mentioned.
There were lots of highlights tonight, featuring songs new and old. Mirrorball was just beautiful, as was new title track Little Fictions, a monster piece of music with wild changes of dynamics. It felt like a rollercoaster that had had to make an additional circuit of the track because nobody could grab the brake lever. The complex and drum-heavy Little Fictions was followed by Lippy Kids, a minimalist work of art with no drums at all but audience shouts of “Build a rocket boys!” that could probably have been heard in the nearby Duke of Cornwall pub. During The Birds, Garvey borrowed a fan phone and filmed the band and audience before reuniting it to its no doubt ecstatic owner. He did shoot it portrait though. It’s going to look rubbish on You Tube…
The mass community singing was reserved for the close of the show and the staple ingredients of One Day Like This and Grounds For Divorce. The former was considered anthemic enough to help close the London Olympics and puts a lump in my throat so big it’s in danger of impacting my knees. The latter was heralded by the provision of an additional snare and floor tom and some call and response singing of the lyric hook initiated by Guy that would have made Freddie proud. In the choruses, Garvey battered the hell out of the extra skins. It was brilliant.
“This was one of my favourite ever birthdays” the frontman said at the end. For many of us in here, it was just one of our favourite ever days.
Live Review & Photography by Simon Reed. Elbow at Eventim Hammersmith Apollo on 6th March 2017.
Simon has his own music photography site here: http://www.musicalpictures.co.uk