Hey, I'm back from vacation, which means I'm done saving for vacation, and I'm free to spend money on concert tickets again. How was the holiday? (Thanks for asking!) It was great, and my legs are so tan now (quite a feat in the land of fog). But I have to be honest: I was ready to come home and wear clean clothes. The prospect of catching Elbow at the Fox Theater didn't hurt either.
Elbow, Fox Theater, May 27, 2014: I've said it before: I don't know how people hear music anymore. Personally, I cling to an old-fashioned mix of friends' recommendations (kind of), industry buzz (to a certain extent), and KEXP podcasts (weekly), but it's an imperfect system. At the Elbow concert, I asked around because so many people in proximity were newbies -- though not to other concerts I've attended. One woman cited Peter Gabriel's patronage, which isn't a surprise, given the sound of the first album. Her son also mentioned the use of Elbow's music in a couple of video games.
I bring this up because this was easily the biggest paying audience I'd yet seen Elbow play to in the United States (Hardly Strictly Bluegrass doesn't count), and frankly, the venue was a tad too large for them. They probably should've played the Warfield, but the Fox kept it cozy by closing off the upper section of seats (a move the Warfield might want to borrow, judging by the Frightened Rabbit show last fall, to name one recent gig).
Elbow rose to the occasion, regardless of raw numbers. The normally five-piece band added a couple of ladies on strings, to fully augment their grand, sweeping sound. But of course, the attention remained on the core players, particularly Guy Garvey. He wasted no time on welcoming us personally and paying respect to the Fox. Is it crowd work? Maybe, but it was an unabashed success.
I don't get to the Fox a whole lot, so I don't know where the bar is set for a theater-size show, but Elbow's production was impressive and probably borrowed elements from its stadium presentation abroad. In addition to the extra musicians, they poured on a light show and pretty stage adornments, including the album cover blown up as the backdrop and a single mirrorball hanging from the rafters for -- what else? -- "Mirrorball."
Looking at the setlist, the band played a relatively short set, at least compared to some of the bands I favor, especially one with so many records in its catalog: 15 songs in all. On the other hand, their tunes are dense, complex affairs, and the 15 songs probably packed the power of at least 20 from any other group. At some point in a band's career, they are no longer able to perform every song that the fans may want to hear and must cherry-pick among their titles. I understand this, but I'm a tiny bit miffed we got only one song from the first record ("Scattered Black and Whites") and didn't hear perhaps my favorite Elbow song of all, "Station Approach." Waaaaah!
But among the songs played, you couldn't say they were anything less than balls-out performances. Every song felt like an experience, helped both by the musical onslaught of seven musicians playing together and by Guy's encouragement to sing along, wave our arms, and clap to the beat. In anyone else's hands, this might've been manipulation. At an Elbow show, it instead feels like the most natural action you can take.
What Elbow's audience may have lacked in sheer numbers, they made up for in enthusiasm and ardor. As a fool who has to stand in the front at every show, I don't have the best sense of the crowd reaction. Usually, the people around me eat it up, but the rest of the crowd might be sitting on their hands, for all I know. Quite simply, this was not possible at the Elbow show, at least not with Guy pointing at people in the crowd and urging the balcony to get up out of their seats. By your command, Mr. Garvey, including the guy who accidentally knocked me in the back of the head while caught up in the full throes of emotion. (He earnestly apologized.)
I can't highlight only one song from the show, so I'll mention several. From the new album, The "Fly Boy Blue/Lunette" mashup is fantastic to hear, particularly how the two halves align. "The Birds" is always a jawdropper, from its hypnotic intro to its cathartic build to the soaring refrain. If you're going to bang your head at an Elbow show, this is the song for you! "Grounds for Divorce" also delivers a visceral thrill, with a snarling tone that might even come close to the topic under discussion. As a total pushover, though, I'll cite the the encore of "Lippy Kids" and "One Day Like This" as the best closing combination you could hope for.
I probably fixate on Guy way too much at Elbow shows, but he lives up to his role as frontman. An informal poll of friends after the gig reached the same conclusion. Guy is truly magnetic, but lest you think it's an ego show, I'd like to mention each band member gets a share of the spotlight. In fact, Guy practically opened the show with a multiple-choice question addressing the Band-Aid on Pete Turner's head. I think the general consensus said Pete had saved a grandma and her kitties from a burning building, but I suspect the Queens of the Stone Age may have been involved in the mishap.
Watching Guy, I was reminded of a quote I read a million years ago in an interview with -- don't laugh -- Simon LeBon. As I recall, he asserted there are very few true lyricists; most musicians get away with a good line or lines, but a fully detailed train of thought is a rarity. I'm going to slot Guy Garvey into this rare category of lyricist. Listen to "Lippy Kids," and revel in the mix of observation and identification with the young charges -- then try to tell me you haven't been there at some point in your life.
I don't assume we'll get to see Elbow in a mere two years from now, but should they return, I can easily imagine whole roomfuls of fans clamoring to hear from them, no matter where they play.
John Grant opened the show, and even with his stripped-down arrangements, he was a good match for the band. He too delivered raw, emotional songs about loves lost and unmet expectations, though with a more sardonic view. "Sigourney Weaver" and "GMF" went over quite well, but his fans in the audience welcomed every song with hoots and cries.
» one day like this a year
» throw those curtains wide