The first words out of Guy Garvey’s mouth suggest that something’s changed. “And I don’t know Jesus anymore,” he declares over the grimy guitar riff and glitchy stop-start rhythms of Dexter & Sinister. “How do you keep your eyes ablaze, In these faith-free, hope-free, charity-free days?” the Elbow singer asks.
The darkness and despair, previously masked by majestic melodies, are now out in plain sight. The band know what they’re doing though: the song’s final transformation is into a shimmery instrumental passage that soars with the voice of tonight’s opener, Jesca Hoop.
Still, an ominous new song is a daring way for a usually welcoming band to open a show. But it perfectly lays out what will happen over the next two hours at Hammersmith’s Eventim Apollo. What’s changed, Elbow appear to be saying, is the emotional intensity of it all. Everything familiar about tonight — from the gorgeous tunes and Garvey’s self-deprecating banter, to the mass singalongs that unite band and audience — seems amplified.
Perhaps it’s because Garvey, who jokingly describes himself as someone needing “endless affirmation”, last hit the road with Elbow in 2019. Maybe it’s because they’ve had to wait two years to tour their “new old” album Giants Of All Sizes. It could be down to choosing to swap arenas for the relative intimacy of venues like the Apollo. Or maybe there’s the shared relief that it’s even possible for 5000 people to get together and actively engage with the intense feelings coming from the stage.
Yes, amongst the other new songs, there’s more anguish in the brooding Empires and its allusions to Brexit. There’s some barely tempered rage in the edgy White Noise White Heat that deals with the Grenfell Tower fire and climaxes in a maelstrom of keyboard brass and wiry guitar from Craig and Mark Potter. And there’s a masterful interplay between melancholy and hope in the delicate Weightless, touchingly introduced by Garvey as “a song for my son about his grandad”.
ElbowGarvey’s sense of loss is equally apparent, but extends to the audience, in his preamble to My Sad Captains. Dedicated to “all our missing friends”, the gentle acoustic track is elevated not just by Garvey’s tender croon, but the violins of Gita Langley and Fiona Brice, and the 5000 voices easily tempted to sing the refrain of “oh my soul”.
Even more beautiful, and no less audience-supported, are a dreamy Mirrorball (with its line of “everything has changed” unintentionally taking on new significance) and the most perfectly named song ever: Magnificent (She Says). Again lifted by Langley and Brice, it sounds particularly glorious tonight, especially when the crowd’s vocal almost overpowers Garvey’s — yet another reminder that, at an Elbow show, the band don’t perform to the audience. They perform with them.
The possible exception is What Am I Without You from the upcoming “new new” album Flying Dream 1, a collection described by the singer as a “very quiet, bruised, wistful, late-night thing”. The as-yet-unreleased song begins with an organ riff and pained vocal, before Pete Turner’s soul bassline and Alex Reeves’ swinging drums kick in to create a buoyant, retro ’60s vibe quite unlike anything Elbow have created before.
Sonically (and emotionally) it sits somewhere between the extremes on display tonight. At one end are a funereal The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver (featuring the other support act, Peter Jobson) that slowly transforms from quiet desperation to hope-masked self-resignation and the gently hypnotic The Birds, “a song about endless remorse”. At the other are The Bones Of You (with that aggressive guitar riff and fuzzy synth bass) and the dirty blues stomp Grounds For Divorce, complete with the obligatory audience backing vocals conducted enthusiastically by Garvey.
Without any encouragement necessary, the audience engagement reaches its natural climax during the encore. Lippy Kids introduces a whistled back and forth between Garvey and anyone in the crowd who can pucker their lips and blow, before the ballad literally lifts off with a theatre-full of voices belting out the words “build a rocket, boys”.
For the first time in I don’t know how long, I feel truly elated.
22 September 2021
Photo: Naomi Dryden-Smith
- This article originally appeared on Louder Than War.