Elbow @ The Commodore Ballroom - May 23rd 2014
© Jamie Taylor

Elbow + John Grant @ Commodore Ballroom – May 23rd 2014

For this show, I had to switch hats in a hurry. You could say I was double-gigging it, but I’ve never gone from performer to reviewer to within the span of an hour. Mine went well, thanks for asking, and those of John Grant and Elbow likely much more so.

I arrived during the latter third of John Grant’s set. I was immediately struck by his baritone voice. A singer/songwriter originally from Colorado, he accompanied himself on the piano and a becapped fellow who reminded me of Spirit of the West’s John Mann (as I came late and got a standing space near the back, who knows, for all I know it could have been him) alternated between playing acoustic and electric guitar. His lyrics are rather frank – ranging from “I’m the greatest mother****er you’re ever going to meet” to “I only want to have sex with you”. Smooth voice contrasted with no-beating-about-the-bush lyrics certainly made an impression. There were cheers of appreciation and such from the tightly assembled after he was done.

Elbow. I have been ITCHING to see this band play live ever since “Grounds for Divorce” enjoyed a spell on perma-repeat on my iPod around 2009 (when we still had iPods). It was what got them onto my radar and they haven’t left, mostly because their songs are so well crafted. They have released 6 full-length albums since their first one started things off in 2001 and are on a North American tour in support of The Take Off and Landing of Everything.

Richard Jupp’s drum kit was set up at a diagonal to the back stage left corner. The Commodore’s advertising screens were pulled up to the near rafters a few minutes before half past 10 and you could hear the crowd starting to get restless. The instrumental house music played on undeterred and the house lights remain up until the proscribed time (and then some).

At 2232 the lights go out and the instrumental track “This Blue World” that begins the current CD play – this serves to get the cheers and whistles going, but only to a degree; people are awaiting the band, who come on in due course when the Commodore in its entirety erupts. Frontman/vocalist Guy Garvey takes a bit of a bow and greets the crowd.

Sticking to album order, “Charge” is the next song and from where I’m standing, Jupp’s drums almost permeate everything. A pair of women are on risers positioned diagonally from the back stage right corner who play strings (I’m going to guess viola, but I could be wrong) for the instrumental bridges between verses (during the course of the show, they also provide back-up vocals and auxiliary percussion). The song also features bassist Pete Turner on keyboards in addition to those by Craig Potter adding to the percussive elements with the distinctive chord patterns. This ‘punctuation’ of sorts goes well with the lively guitar part produced by Mark Potter and then there’s Garvey’s voice. In a word, it is ON! His voice is evocative, warm and smooth – but it’s the kind of warmth where you don’t know if it’s helped by a whiskey warmed on the tongue or a traditional cup of tea (or anything else in-between).

After the song’s conclusion, Garvey welcomes the audience again and thanks everyone for coming. The lights are up, and he requests the audience to raise their hands.

During the instrumental intro to “The Bones Of You”, Garvey introduces guitarist Potter by name, the ladies are doing the aforementioned auxiliary percussion which underscores the rhythmic swells nicely. Parts of it remind me of Snow Patrol’s “The Golden Floor” – just another reason to like the song. I do like the rhythmic changes – the syncopation against the vocals sailing evenly over it all.

As “New York Morning” begins, guitarist Mark Potter plays the keyboard situated beside him as Turner has since switched to bass guitar. Garvey has some nice rumbly low notes during the song and the repeated chorus that just lulls you along becomes almost like an anthem in this live setting. Much love in the audience for it.

Garvey then has a chat with the audience about how warm it is in the venue (I agree) and suggests to blow onto the nape of the neck of the person in front of you. Asks folks to raise their hands if it feels pervy (a handful of people do), and he laughs remarking “it’s going to be that kind of show” and also that shows also offer the chance for advice. “what advice do you give a broken-hearted friend?” – a possible solution Garvey suggests is to drink, do drugs, stay on the high as long as you can – saying that that basically was the premise of the next song. It’s “Real Life Angel” for which Potter plays his keyboards whenever he’s not playing guitar. Dude is busy – also, I’m marveling at the upstrum (instead of a downward motion followed by an upward, he noticeably begins with the upward motion) – as I’d never seen that before. Great sound! The ladies are back on the strings. Altogether, this song sounds haunting and comforting all at the same time. Simply beautiful.

Craig Potter is introduced by name (and function) before beginning the next tete-a-tete with the audience. Again, the opportunity for advice, the conundrum this time was about missing loved ones, except this time, it was a lot more poignant. Paraphrasing Garvey, if you miss someone, don’t miss them by yourself. Miss them in the company of others. And don’t miss them after dark. (a toast) “To absent friends”. I welled up a bit; the anniversary of my mom’s death is coming up soon, so thinking of that, I resolved to follow that advice this time round.

Advertised as a quiet one, “The Night Will Always Win” was next. Both Potters again on respective keyboards, it looks like Mark is playing a harmony part above Garvey’s gorgeous vocals, and Craig holding long sustained grounding chords. It felt like the song suspended almost everything else that was happening in the room. Crikey, I love this song.

Time for Garvey to check in with the audience again “Everybody still okay?” – there’s a bit of a shout-out looking for Billy and Fi (or Billie and Fee) – no one responds. Something about shy people and how “that’ll never work”. And invitation to “Let’s see your hands” gets a much better response as does the following song “Fly Boy Blue/Lunette” – there’s a reason this song has more than one name – I consider it the musical equivalent of having many seasons in one day, it’s so varied and yes, that guitar is electric as Potter gets a chance at a riff with a harder edge. He and Garvey handle all the vocals for this one. I love how all the edges that sound smoothed out in all the set’s previous songs are accentuated and ever so present in this song (let’s call it the blustery and rainy day part of the song). They then take the energy down again and build it back up ever so nicely to evenness. And the warmth in Garvey’s voice when he wraps both hands around the top part of the microphone to dampen the vocals is pretty much perfect.

For the next chatty interlude, Pete Turner is introduced by name as the bass player and then it seems as though Garvey does a send-up of his own habit of gesturing to the audience with his free arm while he sings by introducing a different kind of motion for the arm, one he called the “lurching swan”, inviting the audience to try it as well. It doesn’t work so well. “We’ll get you all eventually”, he says, going on with “Let’s see what we can do for this one” – and the audience has much better coordination with an overhead arm sway – and then the reason for ‘lurching swan’ becomes a bit clearer, because the next song is “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver” – get it? Crane? Swan? Never mind. The strings are back for the duration of this song and I love the mallets on the cymbals. Vocally, at this stage of the show, it’s a bit of a tour de force – in regards to phrasing, breath, power, control No hesitation. No falters. Just. Perf.

“Pete’s left the band”….nothing… “wasn’t the reaction I was expecting”. Actually, it was both Turner and Jupp who leave the stage, leaving Garvey with the Potters. There’s an exercise in shushing the audience and everyone helpfully joins in. Apparently, the song was about a wedding that took place on a bus. “It was so secret that even to this day, the bride has no idea.” The simple arrangement of acoustic guitar and piano keyboard, dramatic chord movement. “Great Expections” is just a truly, lovely song.

“Please welcome to the stage, Pete Turner and Richard Jupp”. Applause. Jupp is definitely needed as the intro to “Scattered Black and Whites” is rather drum-centric. Potter is still on the acoustic guitar. Again with the haunting sound and a positive luller of a song. Imagine listening to it as raindrops splash against a window.

The next bit was a bit confusing – Garvey was talking about “the next song features my father’s feet. I don’t mean they’re genetically similar with mine. I literally inherited my father’s feet.” – either creepy or I’m missing a metaphor or something. Unsurprisingly, the disco ball above the drum kit gets some lighting attention at this point because the next song is “Mirrorball”. The strings return for this song as does the overhead arm wave. I really love this song; it’s incredibly atmospheric, which goes nicely with the weather imagery that keeps seeping into this recap.

“Cheers, you lot” are Garvey’s next word. Applause, applause. The audience is as appreciative as he is. If I wasn’t getting the sense that we’re nearing the end of the set, the next song’s energy is a big clue. “The Birds” features the punchy alt-rock guitar but sound-wise, it seems to work as though it were part of the rhythm section. Vocals are dusky to begin with (consequently, the lyrics are a lot less clear). The mood changes repeatedly for this song, Craig Potter’s keyboard seems to be making synthy-computery-robot sounds. It all builds up to a level where the floor underneath the carpet I’m standing on is positively pulsing and vibrating. Seriously, we MUST be nearing the end of the set – and my notes also say “I want to take them home so they can play longer. After a rest, of course.” I’m such a considerate taskmaster. We then segue straight into “Grounds for Divorce” – THE song absolutely everyone in the crowd knows. Garvey confidently throws the “oh-oh” echoes and the choruses to the audience and we earn a “Terrific work” comment at the end of it. I agree. Elbow do terrific work. For the introduction to the next song, Garvey does say it’s their last one, and suggests “Sing along if you know it, and sing along if you don’t”. Works for me – I adore “My Sad Captains”: the strings, the acoustic guitar, the multi-part harmonies for the “Oh My Soul” lyric. Speaking of lyrics, I love the chorus “Another sunrise with my sad captains / With who I choose to lose my mind / and if it’s all we only pass this way but once / What a perfect waste of time” – the emphasis is on ‘perfect’, not the waste of time. Which kind of sums up an Elbow show, or this Elbow show since it’s my first (definitely not my last). It’s midnight on the dot as the band leave the stage to much applause. The techies only take approx. 3 minutes to do a quick retune of the pertinent instruments (all the guitars, including bass).

When the band return, Garvey dedicates the next song to John Grant “a massive talent” in his eyes and to everyone here. He mentions that he sees so many familiar faces in the audience and that “it means the world to us”.

The first song of the encore is “Lippy Kids”. I had a sense of it before, but I’m absolutely convinced that one of the reasons this band’s songs can lull you in is that they’re such well crafted songs. And the shows are so inclusive, because Garvey makes a point to involve the audience in everything he and the band do. For this one, the audience are thrown the whistle-back parts and they respond enthusiastically and playfully.

Okay, “one more. If you’re still in fine voice, prove it.” Call for a show of hands and the ‘other’ hit fills the room “One Day Like This” which was a great way to finish a wonderful show (at about 18 minutes past midnight or so – I was so busy clapping and cheering with the rest of the audience, I rather forgot to do a time check.

As I scan the crowd after the lights go up, I see very few young (university-age) people, there are some, but not in large numbers. The audience is clearly skewed towards middle age and I can see how this demographic might find Elbow’s music so appealing – not only are the songs well written, the orchestral flourishes are just a bonus; lyrically, I find the songs rather poetic, literally lyrical and the musicianship is so very good, as a listener, you are getting spoiled and so subtly, you’re not even aware of it. This was one of those rare shows where you’re not 100% sure what actually happened, but your soul feels sated. In the words of Guy Garvey, “Cheers, you lot”.

The Bones Of You
New York Morning
Real Life Angel
The Night Will Always Win
Fly Boy Blue/Lunette
The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver
Great Expectations
Scattered Black and Whites
The Birds
Grounds for Divorce
My Sad Captains

Lippy Kids
One Day Like This

Photos of Elbow © Jamie Taylor

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