Elbow - Manchester Apollo
The lap of honour continues. Have any other Mercury Prize winners greeted their win with such genuine good cheer ? Elbow arrive back home to find two nights' worth of congratulation awaiting them. What differentiates these Apollo shows from their March Academy date is a real sense of victory and vindication. Those of us who've extolled the virtues of Elbow's very particular, exceedingly deliberate, refreshingly challenging take on the form know this: 'The Seldom Seen Kid' deserves whatever silverware you might throw at it but Elbow's real prize is something more substantial by far. Seventeen years on, despite all the acclaim, all the 'promise', Elbow are finally big boys.
This second UK tour of 2008 takes in bigger venues and more of them. The set list receives minor tinkerings ('Weather to Fly' finally, thrillingly, included but still no 'Fugitive Motel' - boo.) They take the stage - and boy, do they take the stage - with 'Starlings', blinding white light, a volley of trumpets, a sense of event. An audience keen to share the love focuses its attention; the casual gig-goer is absent tonight. That Academy gig was pleasantly rowdy and self-righteously celebratory. Tonight's crowd is a tad less 'Well you've finally caught on but we knew all along - where you been ?' but equally keen to offer its approval. There are repeated references to the Mercury and multiple bouts of extended applause. The string quartet is still in place. Good old Richard Hawley turns up again for 'The Fix' and everyone pretends they know who he is. As the show progresses, the shape of the set traces a distinct ebb and flow. For every 'Leaders of the Free World' there is a 'Mirrorball' (and then a 'Scattered Blacks and Whites' just to hammer the point home.) The ratio of stately hymnals to pounding workouts is roughly 2.5:1. It doesn't take a great deal of effort to stay connected through ten or fifteen minutes that offer little chance to even tap your foot but there is definite uplift when the band buck up and really hit their stride. Guy Garvey mirrors this dichotomy by taking every chance possible to debunk the glacial, delicate nature of what his band do. "This one's about this bunch of c**ts" (his band mates) he offers by way of introduction to the night's most stirring moment, a superby reworked 'Weather to Fly'. Tellingly he introduces several songs thus : "This is a song set in ..." Focusing on where his tales of broken lives, empty streets, fractured love actually take place, where their writer was when he was living them, tells you more about the dynamics of his band than even he might care to acknowledge. Their spare, selfless, unshowy backing reveals that, in the best way possible, the musicians in Elbow are Garvey's backing band, no less. Just one in which the loss of a single member would signal the end of the group, the gang. On a night of contrasts, this particular one, that messrs Potter, Potter, Jupp and Turner both support and feed off their leader, is prescient. (At its most elementary, on the stark 'The Loneliness of the Tower Crane Driver' or 'Some Riot', Elbow recall the Blue Nile, another outfit whose approach delivers expressionist washes of sound that cradle snapshot stories of city streets and broken hearts.) Garvey jokes about local bus routes and tries to find his dad in the crowd. (The constant references to being in "the best city in the world" eventually become a bit yawnsome but are forgiveable enough.) His warm, blokey demeanour detracts from something that often goes unreported - vocally, he's a marvel. At times tonight he lifts that right arm, gazes into the back of the circle and lets that plaintive tenor soar into the night.
The biggest cheers, though, are reserved for those stompers. 'Forget Myself' is a mass clap-along. 'Grounds for Divorce' is their new anthem, harnessed to a riff from Jimmy Page's outtake drawer. 'One Day Like This' turns the place into a joyous singalong and a sea of arms and balloons. Returning for an encore of 'Some Riot', 'Station Approach' and 'Scattered Blacks and Whites', Elbow choose to end, however, in a very minor key indeed. No matter; a triumph is a triumph no matter how disquieting the coda. Shuffling stage front, still carrying themselves like a gang of road workers rather than heroic music makers, they throw their arms around each other and face the crowd. They're there for a while.