Live Review: Elbow at the Greek Theatre, Los Angeles, October 1, 2011

As previously described in our review of Andrew Bird, there are few things better to do on a beautiful Los Angeles evening than catch a show at Griffith Park’s Greek Theatre.  Truly the crown jewel of greater L.A.’s outdoor concert venues, the Greek possesses a rare combination of qualities which conspire to make every patron feel like royalty (as opposed to the Hollywood Bowl, which just makes rich people feel like royalty, or Live Nation’s behemoth venues in Irvine and San Bernadino, which actually manage to make all patrons feel like peasants — as chronicled in our review of NIN and Jane’s Addiction at the Verizon).

With dusk giving way to a pristine, balmy night, this past Sunday was such an occasion, and what better way to spend it than with Manchester, UK’s Elbow, who took the Greek’s stage to celebrate not only their latest offering, Build A Rocket Boys, but 20 years of being a band as well.

Elbow at the Greek Theater Los Angeles October 1st, 2011 - photo by Truffle Jones

The Elbow-bone is connected to the Awesome-bone: Elbow's Garvey points the way at the Greek (photo by the author).

Considering most marriages, companies, cars and tv shows don’t last five years, let alone 20, it stands to reason that Elbow is doing something they love.  It also shouldn’t go without appreciation that Elbow regularly rubs comparison shoulders with UK brethren a la Radiohead, Coldplay, Doves, Travis and so on, and as a result is virtually invisible in the tall shadow of those peers, making them practically unknown here in the U.S. 

In truth, while Elbow projects some of the same dolorous qualities which would earn them rank in that talent pool, they’re a far more unique animal, one which manages to be jubilant and inspiring at every turn, rather than cathartically keening or depressive.  Granted, that’s a tough distinction to make, given the endless surfeit of whiny, jangley bands from overseas, but judging by those at the Greek who have been willing to make the investment deciphering the difference, it must have been life-changing; while the lack of Elbow’s reputation here in the U.S. was made apparent by sections of empty seats at the back of the venue, crowd sing-a-longs, arm waves, and “spirit fingers” – aka Things L.A. Audiences Are Normally Too Cool For — were all in heavy effect Sunday night.

Leading off with “The Birds,” (likewise is the lead-off track from their latest album) Elbow provided a slow, building overture which gently led the audience by the hand into their world.  Barely pausing for air, they immediately slammed into the bass-heavy undertow of “The Bones Of You,” from their 2008 Mercury Prize**-winning masterpiece The Seldom Seen Kid.

Given the success of The Seldom Seen Kid, it was not likely coincidence that the meat of Elbow’s set came from that same record – seven selections in all, as opposed to six from Build A Rocket Boys and three from 2004’s Leaders Of The Free World.  But despite the limited album selection, Elbow’s show was a journey of dynamic peaks and valleys, ranging from the delicate (“Mirrorball” and “Lippy Kids”) to near-a cappella (“Puncture Repair” and “The River”), to the orchestrally saturated (“Open Arms” and “The Loneliness Of A Crane Tower Driver”).

Yet through it all, Elbow managed to rock, in no small part thanks to Garvey, who bobs and weaves endlessly, trawling the stage with lookout gestures and semaphore-like arm waves as if he’s inviting the crowd to deliver of each of his lyrics with him.  With his beard, girth and front-teeth South Park smile, he comes off more as a favorite uncle rather than a rock star putting on airs, making the whole Elbow experience that much more endearing.

In between songs, Garvey fettered himself with self-deprecating comments, mocking his own tendency to speak “more British” when in the States (using phrases such as “good show” and “push on”) and describing his falsetto on the soaring “Weather to Fly” as singing “in dolphin.”  He likewise wasn’t shy when it came to speaking about the circumstances behind songs (a crushing heartbreak that led to an early-AM emergency call to drummer Richard Jupp, yielding the song “Puncture Repair,” for example), which is something of an inner sanctum taboo for most artists. 

Such is Garvey’s accessibility – projecting sincerity at every turn, rather than the encrypted fantasy that is de rigueur in popular music — his regular guy-ness facilitates an underdog image that makes you root for Elbow in part because you feel like you’re rooting for yourself.  Given that context, when Garvey requested some crowd participation for the heavy call-out on “Grounds For Divorce” early in the set, it took hardly any doing, and was the first of several audience collaborations that night (most being involuntary).  Perhaps the show bill should have been “Elbow + Crowd.”

By the time Elbow’s set ended, the call for an encore was both well-deserved for the band and genuinely wanted by those in attendance.  Elbow obliged by taking the stage again with Garvey, guitarist Mark Potter, keyboardist Craig Potter and bassist Pete Turner all wielding trumpets for which to perform the horn fanfare for The Seldom Seen Kid’s “Starlings.” 

A note-perfect “Station Approach” followed, after which point the Greek was so full of good feelings and smiles that Elbow could have staged a coup and it probably would have been all right with everyone there.  Instead, they improbably stoked the flames even higher with the bombastically elegant “One Day Like This,” taking the crowd with them into the emotional stratosphere on their newly built rocket.

It’s common knowledge in the music world that there’s something in the water in Manchester, UK.  After all, the perpetually damp city has yielded some of the most influential and lauded bands in rock history, including the likes of The Smiths, Joy Division/New Order, Happy Mondays, The Verve, The Stone Roses and oh so many more.  Yet for the most part, Mancunian bands have something else in common – their merits are generally overlooked in the U.S. until long after their expiration date. 

For a band like Elbow, whose stock in trade for two decades has been sincerity rather than trying to be cool, they might as well have two strikes against them on this side of the Atlantic.  True as that might be, with the world becoming a dark place as of late, here’s hoping we can all find some Elbow room to appreciate this uplifting act while we can.

** The (Barclaycard) Mercury Prize is a UK music award which focuses on artists possessing actual artistry, as opposed to the Brit Awards or Grammys, which instead emphasize commercial success.  By way measurement, other Mercury Prize winners include Primal Scream, Portishead, Gomez, Antony & The Johnsons and PJ Harvey.  Elbow has been nominated three times).

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