Today is lead singer Guy Garvey’s birthday, and he’s in a gaming mood. “How old do you think I am?” he asks the crowd, early on during Elbow’s set at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom. “Let’s have some guesses.” “19!” screams one particularly feisty lass off to the left of the stage, whooping and clapping with a giddy satisfaction. “19?” he asks, incredulously, staring over the microphone with a clever look. “What’s your name? I like you.”
You’d be hard-pressed to determine, from Garvey’s playful mood and teddy-bear appearance on stage tonight, that Elbow actually perform some of the most brooding material currently coming to the States under the umbrella of British rock—far from the emotional four-piece standards of Coldplay, Starsailor, or Travis. Rather than bank on their ability to put lovesick diary entries to music (though their tunes discuss the aspects of relationships, too), Elbow’s songs largely rely on unwanted visions, bleak realities, and often-disturbing metaphors (“I’ll be the corpse in your bathtub,” begins “Newborn”, one of the quintet’s most heralded numbers). Paired with that gloom is musical experimentation that, though hardly complicated, buzzes intensely with energy. Asleep in Back, their 2002 US release (2001 UK), is thick with prog influences; when they want to, their sound is under-girded by beat-conscious, almost funky, potency; their basic instrumentation (guitar, bass, keyboards, drums) is buoyed up with effects and ambient threads that are reminiscent of The Doves. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that Elbow, unlike much of their not-quite brethren, have a long—some might even say tumultuous—history. Having met in the early 1990s, the band has modified their style on many different occasions, as they earned their legs playing gigs in South Manchester, England. They’ve also been on numerous labels—first Island (who dumped them), then EMI (ditto), and finally now, V2.
Let’s just say that the battle scars show—and in a good way. Elbow come off as mature, seasoned veterans, despite the fact that this is the first point in their career where they’re enjoying marked international acclaim. (Beyond the critical hullabaloo coming their way, the band made the short list for the esteemed Mercury Music Prize in 2001.) Tonight, the crew enter the stage around 9:30pm, much to the delight of the sold-out crowd, who probably expect that South, who will also play tonight, would have come on first. Behind them is a video screen, which has just completed streaming a video of the trip to the venue, starting in New York’s Union Square and traveling downtown until it’s become a real-time broadcast of the stage, focusing in on the audience, then the band as they play. Elbow appropriately open with “Any Day Now”, the first cut off Asleep in Back. The number—a sonic expanse heavy with bass and keyboard—erupts and engulfs the audience, who seem suspended by its heft and wonder. Above such broad territory, Garvey’s vocals shimmer like a star in his trademark, gentle tenor. “What’s got into me?” he sings, nearly motionless on stage, holding the mic in his cupped hands like it’s water and he’s thirsty for a drink. “Can’t believe myself lately.” The spooky vocal harmonies of the chorus are rendered hypnotic, as Garvey closes his eyes, entranced.
It seems as though they might uphold the somber mood all night, but after playing another number (b-side “George Lassoes the Moon”), Garvey begins going on and on about his birthday. After asking the audience to guess his age (as I mentioned earlier; he finally reveals that he’s 28), he tells of his 11th birthday party, to which he invited the entire class but only one boy showed up. The audience members “aww” in earnestness at his tale before Elbow begin the blushing acoustic guitar-centered number, “Red”. It is clear that this is to be a night of emotional highs and lows, laughs sandwiched between brutal lyrics and melancholy musical moods. The screen in back, which flashes stylized varied images such as a couple kissing or a man falling, adds to the pensive, heady experience.
It should be noted that what Elbow do onstage, by some assessments, is not exactly a “show”. The bassist, Pete Turner, keyboardist Craig Potter, and obviously Richard Jupp, the drummer, stay mainly stationary; guitarist Mark Potter is the one most guilty of rock & roll posturing, though he mostly sways back and forth. And Garvey, outside of a few hyper-animated moments, largely wanders the stage, sometimes seeming so distracted that he could wander off the stage. Their music is also remarkably clean, which can in part be attributed to the melodic, mellifluous “noise” that’s the cornerstone of their sound. (After all, what is “messy noise?” Noise is supposed to be unwieldy and a bit hard to navigate.) But, truth be told, this is not the sort of music that drives audiences into dancing fits, or even dreamy swaying. Instead, while respectful, this attendees pretty much stand and listen.
But while Elbow might do what they do without flourish, they also do it without hubris; they’re confident, believable, and downright friendly. And the beauty of the bulk their songs is that they are at once nothing and everything: broad strokes of electro-echoes paint a canvass that’s dotted by simple turns of note, easily entered melodies, and honeyed vocals. Those songs that somewhat stray from that—for example, the wicked, almost psychotic “Bitten By the Tailfly” off Asleep which they also play tonight—don’t sit in contradiction, however; instead they help showcase Elbow’s diverse talent and roots.
Second to last, they play one of their most regarded numbers, “Newborn”. Garvey takes the acoustic guitar here, and as he sings airily, the song stretches into distortion-heavy chaos, which continues to double its mass until it seems possible that the walls of the venue might blow out. The lights are blinding and flash through the crowd, who are awestruck. This number—over seven minutes long—features a wild instrumental interlude that is broken by Garvey’s uncharacteristically manic vocals; the song builds to an uncontrollable climax before abruptly going silent.
Twenty-eight may be ancient in rock star years, but obviously the time has paid off. “Definitely my most well-attended birthday party,” Garvey says, as he slows from the frenzy to descend into the last song of the night, “Scattered Black and Whites”, which he dedicates to his in-attendance sister, Louise. “I have steadily improved as I’ve gotten older. I do feel exceptionally wise today.”
And we are thankful for that wisdom.