When I walk through the entrance of Webster Hall and observe a brick of tickets still available 20 minutes before Elbow take the stage, a combination of disbelief and anger runs through my entire body. How could this band not sell out a show in the world’s largest metropolis? Why has a band loved by critics across the globe remained a silent mystery to most? How can Coldplay sell out venues four times as large while charging four times as much?
None of this makes sense to me.
Some of my fellow Elbow supporters may be content to keep their favorite British import to themselves, hovering quietly below the radar of the mainstream, but when I see that pile of tickets, it makes me want to shout from the rooftops that three albums in, these guys are serious contenders, getting better and better with each effort.
I have heard the acoustics of Webster Hall ruin a handful of live performances, as the cavernous layout often masks the subtler details of a song. Tonight, however, the sound is crystal clear; a testament to the abilities of the band’s touring sound team. The last time the quintet was in New York, lead singer Guy Garvey was injured and confined to a seat. Tonight, he bounces around the stage with the enthusiasm of a musician on his first tour. When he addresses the crowd he is sincere and funny. He teases everyone for quitting too early during a clap-along version of “Forget Myself” and recommends that the room try working in shifts to avoid tiring.
The song that most people will undoubtedly be discussing after the show is the intense B-Side, “McGreggor”. Certainly strong enough to have been included on the last album, the song begins with Guy in the dark standing above two snare drums. He begins chopping a single drumstick against another while rocking back and forth on his front foot and breathing moans into his microphone. He begins pointing a drumstick to different sections of the room, addressing people with his eyes, shaming them for their sins. It is fascinating and twisted, and the room holds its breath. An ominous sound opens the song—a soldier march-timed thumping combined with the melody of the score, where the audience is first introduced to the story’s villain. When Guy opens his mouth he is no longer singing—he is screaming like a madman. Just before the chorus kicks in, Guy throws his weight on the drums beneath him, and a bright light flashes across the room to accompany his rapping.
But it is “Switching Off” and “Newborn”—two songs from the band’s catalogue that I have always somewhat dismissed—that are highlights of the evening. During “Switching Off”, a blue light rolls over the crowd as the band basks in the afterglow and darkness. A small ray of light shines, as though coming from a keyhole, over Guy’s right shoulder as he sways in and out of view. His voice is controlled and his earnestness shines much brighter than the light that casts his view. The room’s darkness is appropriate because this is some vulnerable material—“Is this making sense?/ What am I trying to say?/ early evening June/ this room and a radio play/ this I need to save.” Just as sure as the singer seems to remember that room and his company from that evening every time he sings this song, the band’s delicate handling of the ballad assures that audience undoubtedly will preserve the night and this moment.
“Newborn” is the last song the band plays, and its most powerful. The song starts off as quiet as any other Elbow ballad but soon turns into one of their most explosive. During the blitzing coda, Craig Potter’s organ gives an eerie salvation to the rough climax, as the lights create an epileptic crossfire. Guy’s voice still punches holes through the sonic atmosphere as he declares, “Nothing’s changed/ Nothing could be wrong”, and you have to understand his point.
It’s clear that it doesn’t much matter to Guy Garvey how many tickets were left at the door. All that matters are the number of captivated ears in the room. Here he stands, singing from the pages of old diaries as his best mates play beside him and give second voice to his words.
We live in an age saturated with rock stars and rappers more concerned about making a name than they are about making music. Elbow is a group of talented musicians whose music has evolved as their relationships and lives have - organically and at its own pace. If somebody wants to drop $80 to see Chris Martin read junior high poems that play backdrop for laundry detergents, so be it. If it is obscurity that allows a band like Elbow to progress and challenge themselves while so many contemporaries play it safe, I say let them remain the best-kept secret in music. Let them remain all mine