Elbow, Cardiff, International Arena, Cardiff
The Twilight Singers, Komedia, Brighton
It's taken 20 years, but Guy Garvey has evolved from shy frontman to stadium showman without losing any of his huggability
Sunday 27 March 2011
If there's one thing everyone at an Elbow concert craves but can't quite confess to, it's Guy Garvey's ursine embrace. Until the Brit Awards inaugurate the long-overdue Most Huggable Lead Singer category, the Bury band will have to keep walking away with inadequate gongs like Best British Group instead.
Not that Elbow's knack for writing emotionally intelligent stadium anthems hasn't assisted the unassuming quintet's ascent. But the sheer likeability of their teddy-bear frontman seals the deal, and secures their position as the Coldplay who don't make you feel homicidal.
He's an unlikely sex symbol, sporting the sort of beard that ought to have Golden Wonder crisp crumbs in it, but there are wolf-whistles nonetheless when he takes off his jacket. Garvey's self-deprecating reaction is "Hardly, but thank you ...".
The current tour takes in two nights at London's 02, playing to 44,000 people. They've come a long way from Clwb Ifor Bach, the Cardiff club a few back-alleys away from the CIA, where I first saw them in 2001. By that time they'd already been going for 10 years. It'll be 20 in June. Even if you're not drawn to sit down and listen to Elbow albums, something about their success has been pleasing to behold: the meek inheriting the earth in a modesty blaze. And for fans of The Wire, it's good to see Bubbles in paid employment as a bassist.
Since joining Jarvis Cocker, Lauren Laverne and Huey Morgan as one of BBC6 Music's inspired roster of lead-singers-turned-radio-DJs, Garvey's emerged from his shell to become one of rock's more loquacious and entertaining between-song banterers; all of which helps Elbow rise to the challenges inherent in their unlikely new status as a megaband.
Not long ago, you'd have marked Garvey down as the boy least likely to run along a catwalk, Bono-style, and serenade the middle of the crowd, but run along it he does. He's shamelessly showbiz, orchestrating overhead flamenco handclaps on "The Bones of You", pulling a brilliant stunt involving an audience ovation for the person sitting furthest from the stage, announced by row, seat number and name (and all of Cardiff singing "Adrian Jones" to the tune of "Hey Jude"), buttering up the locals by revealing that guitarist Mark Potter once wrote to Jim'll Fix It asking to play in local hero Shakin' Stevens' backing band, and claiming that the Welsh capital gets more hours of sunshine than anywhere else in the UK. (Listen, Guy. I grew up here. I know that's bull.) He's also flash enough to pour cocktails, Bond-like, from a shaker during the band huddle on the mini-stage – and to hand a spare glass to "the pretty girl in the front there".
As well as a joy in and of itself, all this is a vehicle for getting the maximum number of people to listen to Elbow's songs. And they deserve to be heard, as teen memoir "Lippy Kids" from new album Build a Rocket Boys! proves, to name but one: "Lippy kids on the corner begin settling like crows/And I never perfected that simian stroll/The cigarette scent, it was everything then/ Do they know those days are golden?"
They end, like any crowd-pleasing act would, with The Big Hit. "One Day Like This" is the Novello-winner that, more than any other, made Elbow the biggest joint since the Camberwell Carrot, and it's the type of song you'd need to be churlish to a psychiatrically interesting degree to deny. Elbow may not quite set the pulses racing, but they warm hearts. One gig like this a year will see you right.
The Twilight Singers' Greg Dulli isn't a standard cookie-cutter sex god either (more of a cookie monster if anything). With his robber's-stocking profile and expanded girth – God knows I'm a glasshouse stone-thrower on this one, but these days it's less a case of being a big fan of Greg Dulli, more a fan of big Greg Dulli – he looks like an inflatable Breckin Meyer.
But in the past I've seen this guy reduce women to jelly, like some Greco-American Barry White: one stamp of a tossed cigarette ember on the Astoria stage, one Orbison growl, one chord of The Afghan Whigs' "Blame Etc", and they were gone.
The irresistible appeal of Dulli is that his horns are always showing. In his lyrics, the man who put the "sin" in Cincinatti (and the "natty") has always spelled out what men are thinking but never dare to say. On the Whigs' classic Gentlemen, an album which in pre-iPod days I couldn't bear to travel without, that meant lines like "This ain't about regret – my conscience can't be found" and, brilliantly, "Think I'm scared of girls, well maybe ... but I'm not afraid of you".
The transition from the Sub Pop soul-grunge legends into his current incarnation has been seamless. The physical noise the two bands make is almost interchangeable too: a deliciously dramatic cavalcade of minor chords. If anything's missing, it's Dulli's old habit of throwing inspired cover versions into the mix. There's a bit of "She Loves You" in one song, a bit of "Everlasting Love", but it seems he isn't minded to repeat the legendary Islington show of 2004 (Isley Brothers, Abba, Outkast, Judas Priest, Ice Cube, and that's not half of it).
The satanic majesty of Dulli's songwriting persona is undiminished, as demonstrated by snatches such as "Black out the windows, it's party time ..." ("Martin Eden"), "Break it easy to your boyfriend ..." ("Teenage Wristband") and "Careful when you look into my eyes, you'll turn to stone ..." ("Get Lucky"). You don't need to be a genius to read between the lines of this stuff, but Greg Dulli's nudging genius to have written it.
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