Elbow, Koko, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

But Elbow's real story is quieter and longer. It takes in 10 years of struggle before that debut, in a home town, Bury, that made them feel like outsiders. Pulp are the obvious comparison, for their length of time in obscurity, and twisted Northern roots. Garvey, though, has never been derailed by the shock of real stardom, as Jarvis Cocker was. Instead, his band plough on just under the radar, with a fervent fan-base far more valuable and lasting than fame's distractions. This limited success may be because their good albums, like the new Leaders of the Free World, only hint at their specialness. It's at their gigs that Elbow come alive.

They start with the slowly building "Station Approach", a new song about Garvey's visceral relief on returning to the North-west, after the turmoil of his early life there. The glam swagger of "Leaders of the Free World" has a crowd prone to football-style chants, as if Elbow are their team, still more communally involved, as Garvey organises mass clapping; the song's political anger, imagining Bush as a petulant brat, is left for another day.

But it's on old favourite "New Born" that Elbow show why they're special. As arc-lights slowly sweep over the crowd, only Garvey's acoustic guitar and high, hoarse voice can be heard at first. Craig Potter's keyboards then make the sound fuller, hinting first at soul, then at church organs, interweaving with Garvey's guitar in unexpected ways. The music swells to an intricate pulse, gently sucking you in. Garvey looks as lost in it as anyone, till he breaks into an inarticulate chant that soars in volume, as the lights start to strobe. The feeling is one of swirling ascension, till Elbow crash to a discordant dead stop. A comparison to their Coldplay is instructive. While Martin's men write anthems of brutally manipulative bittersweetness, Elbow are calmingly epic, and modestly transcendent.

This suits Garvey's personality. For "Switching Off" he sways like a cabaret singer, letting his voice fade in and out. Though his high choral sighs are angelic, and "Forget Myself"'s truly anthemic Britpop gospel emphasises the band's non-specific religious sense, anything like the worship Martin evokes would make Garvey cringe. With his lankly hanging hair and bow-legged gait, he will never be mistaken for a star, one reason he's so warmly loved. "Five chunky Northerners and a handful of good tunes," is how he explains Elbow's limited success. They're also a band who know how to hold back to draw you in; a long-term, literally off-beat alternative to pop's hectoring rush.

Comments