Elbow, The O2, gig review


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The Independent Culture

One singer, one pianist: stripped-back interludes may be a staple of arena rock gigs, proving the authenticity of mainstream acts, but for true intimacy you will struggle to beat Guy Garvey and keyboardist Craig Potter.

Apart from that pair, you can hear a pin drop during their haunting first verse of 'The Blanket Of Night', a plea for empathy with asylum seekers, before the rest of Elbow join in.

The Mancunian five-piece may have achieved national-treasure status by penning wedding staple 'One Day Like This', leading them to score the BBC's 2012 Olympic theme, yet this long-suffering group still revel in understatement.

This is especially the case on current album The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, where thankfully they refuse to try striking anthemic gold once more in the manner that made 2011's Build A Rocket Boys! a slight misstep. And despite its more minimal direction, as evinced on that pro-immigrant number, last month's follow-up has become Elbow's first number one album at the sixth time of asking.

Rather than throwing open curtains to greet the sunshine, Garvey is pondering middle-age, losing friends and breaking up, though the latter's impact is difficult to judge given the respected BBC6 broadcaster was bruised and worldly wise when his band first emerged in the early noughties. The bearded, bear-like singer pads from stage to runway and even if the latter is low enough for him to press the flesh, he remains a commanding figure. His constant cajoling for arm-waving and clapping feels like compensation for the delicacy provided by the new material that packs their set.

Elbow are still capable of grand gestures, progressing in short order from piano notes tinkling over moody electro pulses and involving percussion to Floydian arrangements both loud and intricate, aided by the judicious involvement of a seven-strong brass and strings section.

The trumpets add a plaintive salute to the elegiac 'My Sad Captains', a highlight from Take Off..., and an alarming no-wave punch to 'Fly Boy Blue'. Mid-set, the end of Garvey's ramp becomes a mini-stage for stripped-back readings of 'Great Expectations' and part of 'The Blanket...'.

Potter's upright piano used for this pair of ballads suggests bringing the feel of a saloon bar into the arena, an effect achieved elsewhere through Garvey's easy familiarity and rapport with his audience. “We lost a friend last week,” he says by way of introduction and dedication to 'The Night Will Always Win', beginning a ramble that ends sweetly with a toast to absent friends. Later, the frontman instigates an astonishing piece of audience participation he terms a reverse Mexican wave.

Thus, Elbow's two-hour set swings from the melancholy trip-hop influences of 'Charge' to the crunching grunge of 'Grounds For Divorce' (with a cameo from Garvey on his own drum kit), via the gliding strings of 'The Birds'. So many exquisite details require constant concentration and the fans get their due reward. Garvey essentially turns over 'One Day Like This' to them and the massed ranks happily take charge.