Quite often when a band finds commercial success, it can be at the risk of losing their old fans. This is often pure and simple music snobbery; “Oh I liked them before they sold out” being the line you most expect to hear, the people who like to think they are music trend setters, seeking out the new up and coming bands to show how hip they are, then dropping them when they find fame, to show again how cool they are.
And other times, it is because the band changes; maybe following a style that is more commercial but less appealing to some, losing the edge that attracted some of their original fans. I know full well this has happened to me in the past, and I’m sure it will happen again. I like to think when I go off a band, it’s this reason, not because I don’t want to listen to them now they are slightly more popular.
And so that brings me nicely onto Elbow, one of the best kept secrets for so long until that pesky Mercury Music award win thrust them into the limelight back in 2008. Way back in 2001 with the long overdue release of their debut, “Asleep In the Back”, I was in awe of their beautiful landscape sounds. I wasn’t the only one, that album being nominated for the Mercury award at the time. But commercial success was always just on the horizon, and by the third album, their record label had clearly lost faith and they were dropped.
In that time though, a hard core fan base remained, and they stayed true to their sound. Then out came “The Seldom Seen Kid”. I remember laying in bed one night, hearing it for the first time on XFM, when the band talked the always knowledgeable John Kennedy through the album track by track, explaining the stories behind the songs and how it all come about. And I was once more transfixed by their beauty, their well crafted song, their sheer perfection. And I also listened to every track as the radio played them out thinking “This isn’t going to break them into the big time, this album is just too un-commercial, nothing to grab the mass radio audience here”, I knew full well me and the other devotees could keep them as our lovely secret without having to tell people that we preferred them when they weren’t famous.
Yes, ok, I may have misjudged that one then. A million plus sales later, a shed load of awards, world tours, I admit it, I misjudged it just every so slightly. And I am so happy that I did, because Elbow should never have been a secret, they deserved to be seen as a band that they made albums that should be cherished and held up as an example of what music should be all about.
So here we are then tonight, Hammersmith Apollo, a crowd packed in and waiting with high expectations. The staging is as simple as always, it’s about the music after all. About the only addition from previous times I have seen them in smaller venues is a small staggered section to one side for the strings and brass section, a few lighting rigs, a plain back drop, nothing to distract from what we are here for, fine music. If you are as good as Elbow, you just don’t need distractions.
The band saunter onto the stage casually, no great fanfare, just taking their places, a quick count in and straight into the latest album opener, “This Blue World”, a slow builder of a song that rises and falls and highlights the surprising smoothness of Guy Garvey’s voice. Then from the new to the old, “Any Day Now” a nod to that debut album, but showing that while they have matured in age, the music has always been of a high quality. This isn’t a case of doing a few old ones to fill the gaps, this is old songs because they deserve to be there.
In-between songs Garvey banters with the audience, at ease and at home, not long rambles, sometimes one-liners, sometimes a little more, on a couple of occasions giving a background to the next song or answering back some calls from the audience. He is a natural, maybe doing this for 20 years has honed his skills, or maybe doing a radio show on the side has given him more gift of the gab. Either way, it’s fine entertainment and the audience lap it all up. Even when he starts to tell a story about one of the crew who has run onto the stage, only to end the story with “I should have a punch line for that really shouldn’t I” he is still greeted with cheers.
But we came for the music, a run through the new and old. And while emphasise is given to the new as you would expect, the old is not ignored at all, at least one song from every album finds its way into tonight’s set list (http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/elbow/2015/eventim-apollo-london-england-13ca0d99.html), not always the ones you might expect, but with a back catalogue this good, they could play a different set list every night and it would still be of top quality.
They surprise the audience by throwing in “One Day Like This” early on, the song that is first on everyone’s lips when you mention Elbow, and the one you would expect to be saved for the closer. But it is dropped so casually in, “Here’s one you might know” declares Garvey as the opening bars play out and the audience explode ready to sing. It’s a show stopper, and will always be so. “Throw those curtains wide, one day like this a year would see me right” is sung back and forth between band and audience, Garvey directing proceedings, pitching it perfect, milking the refrain for every ounce of effect. And then as soon as he decides it is finished, fantastically moving on by declaring that the next song, “Bitten By The Tailfly” is about “getting drunk, doing drugs and going out to pull.” The contrast is perfect, both lyrically and musically, the dirty guitar certainly different from the smoothness of “One Day Like This”.
As the evening draws closer to the end, we’re treated to the opening two songs from “Build A Rocket Boy”, but the first, “Birds” is a total reworking, taking the original and adding additional layers to the point it is almost a new song. And then “Lippy Kids”, made poignant as Garvey dedicates it to the person it was written for who recently passed away.
Then after the title track from the latest album, with its brilliant vocal performance “The Take Off and Landing Of Everything”, my personal highlight as they end the main set with “New Born” another from the debut album, and a song with the perfect opening line, “I’ll be the corpse in your bathtub, useless”, a line I remember listening to in 2001 and still hear today and smile at its poetry.
And then I did something I haven’t done in such a long time. Living in London is perfect, never any rush for trains, but not tonight, a train was calling for my gig partner and I actually had to leave just as the encore started, so I can’t even tell you how amazing it all ended, as I am sure it did. But it actually didn’t matter, the night was still perfect, the band were amazing, Garvey was the front man he was always destined to be, and it was just good to see a band that I have followed for so long continuing to be seen by the bigger audiences, showing that they twenty years of hard word was well worth it, not selling out, not changing to meet the demands of the record label, just doing what they do until the world looked up and noticed them like us lucky ones who were there in 2001.
But saying that, I am actually a terrible music snob, and proud of it. But now and again, I make an exception to the rule, and for that reason I am still in love with Elbow.