Saturday, October 4, 2014

Greatest Thing of Anything: Elbow, Live in Concert

Some time ago, I mentioned how the band Elbow has never really caught on in the United States despite the quality of their music, their popularity in their native England, and the use of one of their most popular singles ("Grounds for Divorce") in a variety of American commercials, movie trailers, and video games.

So imagine my surprise when I finally heard Guy Garvey on my beloved WEQX. Elbow had just released a new album, "The Takeoff and Landing of Everything," with a single entitled "New York Morning." And with the new album, they were doing a new tour through the United States. What better time to catch them in concert? So I took a mini-vacation with my fiance to Philadelphia in May to take advantage of the opportunity. 

They were probably the best live performers I've ever seen.

OK, maybe they didn't play as much from "Leaders of the Free World" as I hoped for. But it was still an awesome experience, thanks in part to the Philadelphia atmosphere itself. From the Penn's View Hotel to the delicious meal at the Cuba Libre restaurant to the historic significance of strolling past Independence Hall and Benjamin Franklin's grave, there was never an unpleasant moment.

The concert took place in The Electric Factory, a warehouse turned concert venue a few blocks away from Market Street. I was worried at first that the small cluster of fans that showed up in time for the opening act by John Grant would be the only people who attended, but the venue slowly but surely filled up. Whether they were die-hard fans or people who were curious to check out a show, whether they came from around the corner or hundreds of miles away, the concertgoers made it a full house.

When Elbow took the stage, they did so in a swelling hurricane of instrumental music. When you see a group live for the first time, it's always hard to tell if the band you paid to see is going to prove why they got a record contract in the first place or if they're going to disappoint you by revealing that the real talent behind the band is whoever digitally removes the suck in post. The opening left no doubt that Elbow knows their way around their instruments, and when the stage lights revealed a pair of violinists to complement the tune you could practically feel the awe in the entire assembled body.

Credit has to be given to The Electric Factory, which either has an Elbow fan among its event coordinators or does plenty of research ahead of time in order to add a little extra flavor to the show. The simple but powerful notes of "The Bones of You" were enhanced by perfectly timed strobe flashes from the stage lights. Later, with a bit of a wink, the lights were toned down to little more than a sparkling disco ball for a performance of "Mirrorball."

No concert by Elbow would be complete without a performance of "Grounds for Divorce," and Garvey took delight in teasing the crowd by saying how well the prior cities in the tour had done in participating in the song, goading Philadelphia to try to do better. The Philly crowd performed exceptionally, I have to say. The first line of the song was followed by an absolutely pitch perfect "WHOA-OH-OH-OH-OH-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-OH" response. Later in the song, the band even kept the audience going for a few extra choruses before Pete Turner dropped the appropriately lung-piercing bass line.

I was surprised to learn that Elbow has been together since 1997; since 1990 if you go back to how Garvey and Turner met when they were teenagers and the band grew from there. It was even more amazing to find out that no band members have departed since the full group assembled. Though Garvey might be considered the face of the band, he doesn't let it go to his head. At the Philly show, he recognized each member as well as the guest violinists. This article in the New York Times delves a bit more into how the band has stayed together as a unit for so long.

The crowd wasn't going to let Elbow go without an encore. A sustained applause brought them out again to play "Lippy Kids" and "One Day Like This." After hearing some of the band's more melancholy songs, like "The Night Will Always Win" and "My Sad Captains," it was nice of them to send us out on a more upbeat note. The finale of "One Day Like This" was especially moving, as the band again made use of numerous pairs of willing lungs to assist with the chorus and make everyone feel all right.

I hope to see you again someday, Elbow, so I might raise a glass to you. Especially if I wind up in England, because I can raise you a glass of your own honest to God beer.

Don't miss a few other great reviews of this show at The Electric Factory: this one from That Music Mag and this other one from The Swollen Fox.

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