Everyone has a favourite band. One they followed since their first gig all the way to stadium domination. Elbow are mine and I’m all the luckier for it.
I first came across them during the “In the City” festival of 1998. They were playing to a packed Dry Bar and even back then they were clearly something special. Although ostensibly a showcase for unsigned bands they’d already signed for Island by the time they played the festival. It showed. Elbow circa 1998 were arguably a louder proposition back then. Tracks like “George Lassos the Moon” and “Theme for Monroe Kelly” were full-on prog rock wig-outs, but the acoustic version of “Red” played in those days with a sole violin accompaniment, and the exquisite piano-led “Powder Blue” showed that they weren’t afraid to turn it down and show off their songwriting, honed during the lean years spent being largely ignored by everyone. Since then I’ve been with them every step of the way, from “The Noisebox EP” to “Build A Rocket Boys”, from the Roadhouse to the MEN, via the Bridgewater Hall, and I’ve enjoyed every mancunian minute of it.
The road to Jodrell Bank wasn’t smooth. Island dropped them of course, forcing them to re-record their debut album. EMI dropped them too, and they only reached mass acceptance with their fourth studio album, 2008′s “The Seldom Seen Kid” and everyone’s favourite wedding singalong single “One Day Like This”. Still, if success had been overnight then Elbow wouldn’t be the charming, honest, witty, and humble band they are today, and it’s these qualities that come over loud and clear whenever they take to the stage. They treated the soaked “jodrellites” (as Guy Garvey had christened the crowd gathered under the vast radio telescope), to a set full of effortless power and consummate stage-craft, but this wasn’t a performance as much as a celebration of the affection that Elbow’s fans hold for their favoured sons. It was a joyous atmosphere that the rain couldn’t dampen, although it was hard to keep the spirits high once the concert had finished and the fans returned to pitch-black fields and cars sinking into the ground. Still, you want to know about the gig, not the parking, or the hour-long queues for food, or the tractors pulling the cars out of the mud.
They took to the stage with the shuffling groove of “High Ideals”, immediate evidence that they’d freshened up the set list since the “..Rocket Boys” tour. They had the crowd in their pocket from the first note, and as “Bones of You” followed the band easily slipped into the well-oiled stadium pleasing give ‘em what they want mode that’s served them so well. They were tight, vibrant, relaxed and exuberant. Typical Elbow really. Despite this there were surprises in store. For “Leaders of the Free World” we saw Guy put on a guitar for possibly the first time in years.
Handling it well despite possible rustiness and the ever growing beer belly (“I’m seeing how big I can get it” he’d already admitted sheepishly to the crowd) he played the solo with obvious relish, duff notes producing laughs all round. “Scattered Black and Whites” made a reappearance in honour of the band’s family in the VIP area, and Craig Potter’s piano danced through the music like the sister of the song leaving perfume in the air. “Station Approach” was predictably bombastic and they extended the heavy guitar stomp seemingly because they felt like a good stomp. Even Guy expressed surprise at their own rendition of “The Loneliness of the Tower Crane Driver”. “I don’t think I’ve enjoyed that more” he professed, the band seemingly at that point where even they start to be astonished by their own awesomeness. Guy then stepped into the rain to enjoy the fireworks above the stage canopy even as his band produced them below. There were toasts to Craig’s new daughter, concerns that the band would be killed in their prime by electric shocks from rain-sodden keyboards, and a dedication to the discover of Pulsars and Guy’s cat. All in a days work for Manchester’s favourites. The only predictable thing for the night would be that they would finish the encore with “One Day Like This” which they duly did, complete with the statutory sing-along and warm glows all round.
And so they raised their arms aloft, the crowd raised them too, and Elbow left the stage. We continued to sing but only the vast radio dish was listening. Still, it’s been listening since the fifties so no change there. Where next for this great band? Personally I hope Guy keeps playing that guitar of his and Elbow unleash their inner rock gods for the next album, but they don’t belong to me any more, they’re not playing for me, my girlfriend, and thirty other people at the Band on the Wall. They belong to the arenas and the masses, the young and old, the sober and the drunk, the happily married and patiently single, the poets and the crane drivers. Elbow are the people’s band and so perhaps they’re now a prisoner of the people’s expectations. They’re too nice a band to risk alienating their fans, you won’t find them taking a Kid-A turn to the left field. They’ve found a winning formula and no one would begrudge them for sticking to it so good luck to them I say. In the meantime they’ve given me some fantastic memories including tonight so here, for posterity, is my all time fantasy Elbow set list. Here’s to the boys from Bury:
George Lassos the Moon
Scattered Black and Whites
Bitten By The TailFly
Leaders of the Free World
The Loneliness of the Tower Crane Driver (with the Halle Orchestra)
Grace Under Pressure
Photo Credit: Jacob Morrison