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Live / stage review

Guy Garvey has us in the crook of his Elbow at Manchester’s Apollo

Now Then attends Elbow’s long-awaited show—delayed but not dampened by Covid.

28 September 2021,

I never thought the Apollo could feel cosy, like a living room with charmingly worn-in armchairs. After all, it’s pretty big and not exactly characterful. Tonight, Elbow will make the venue welcoming in the way a log fire is on a grey day. With a musical style that’s somehow grand and intimate, they’re a band that’s sounded supremely confident for years and makes going through the motions—as they must do with some of their material—look like an enjoyable, fulfilling way to pass an evening. We were meant to be here in April 2020. And by now, we, this double-jabbed audience, have worked up a sizeable appetite for live Garvian reflections on life and love. But first, a beer.

I buy an overpriced two-pinter at the back bar. After a few sips and a bit of waiting around, Elbow’s billed support, Jesca Hoop, is seen and then heard. And what a sound she makes. With an understated charisma akin to Angel Olsen’s, Hoop’s vocals cut through the space like stark spring sunshine. Her singing quells chatter and enlivens our liking for lyricism that has the heft of intelligence, soul, and artistic prowess behind it. I sometimes feel sorry for support acts; they have a tough task on their hands and can be met with bewildering indifference, which I imagine is worse than outright contempt at times. There’s no trace of either reaction here though, I’m relieved to report.

She finishes her set and we hit a lull—a lovely lull in the form of a solo show by I Am Kloot's Peter Jobson. With just a piano for accompaniment, he sings his subtly humorous, sad songs and tells elaborate anecdotes, only comprehensible to those at the front. For Jobson, elocution lessons clearly have no place in the life of a loquacious speaker. Nevertheless, he provides a classy interlude, and the only thing missing is velvety cigarette smoke slowly unfurling towards the ceiling.

Elbow are hot on the trail of Jobson’s lingering last note, wasting little time in getting down to business—though not before Garvey apologises for the slightly late start time, with an effortless blend of genuine contrition and playful disregard. He must’ve done this before, the tardy rascal. Beginning emphatically (and anthemically) with ‘Dexter & Sinister’—the opener from their 2019 album Giants of All Sizes—it’s a sea of head-bobbing, arm-waving, and enthusiastic bellowing from the start. And one thing’s immediately apparent: this album’s not brand new anymore, yet its live legs are only just flexing their muscles.

Garvey softly motions to us with an outstretched arm as he rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet. It’s his characteristic stance, and perhaps one that’ll someday be immortalised in bronze-statue form if he keeps playing his cards right. Not that this is a game, of course. It’s art, and damn fine art at that. Minutes pass by and the set unspools its magic—from moody laments like ‘Empires’ to nourishing hits like ‘Mirrorball.’

After ‘Station Approach’, which tells of acute homesickness for (and keen embrace of) the rainy city, the band suffer a brief technical glitch. "Hold my beer," says Garvey to himself. He then picks up his actual on-stage beer and begins a funny family story about his mum. Smooth as you like. He’s on fine form tonight—and so’s his voice, which is as clear, strong, and warmly familiar as ever. In fact, I’d forgotten just how good it is.

About half way through the set, they surprise us with an unreleased song—‘What Am I Without You’—a taste of Elbow to come. Although it doesn’t seem to elicit a hugely rapturous response here, it has enough about it to hold my attention. It’s wistful and wise, and about Garvey’s wife. It’s also another great example of what Elbow do so well, time after time. They’re the northern workhorses of indie rock—thoroughly ploughing the fields of sentimentality to produce poignancy and new expression. Long may they continue.

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