Rock and roll may still be with us, but where are all the frontmen these days? And when I say that I don’t mean screaming, diving into the mosh-pit, swearing your way through an hour of music. It’s about connection with the audience, those masses that have paid their way to be enthralled by the delight of live music. In days where album sales are dwindling, and the live circuit is an ever-more lucrative, bands that rise above the rest can make their fortune as well as securing their musical legacy. And one such act that is firmly head and shoulders above the mass of soundalikes and NME next-big-things is Elbow. With a solid trade in down-to-earth observation and sardonic northern wit, their music has been a beacon of soaring and atmospheric emotion for nearly two decades. They are a band that can make alcoholism, death and depression sound appealing. It’s as a live act that they truly set themselves apart.
And at their centre is Guy Garvey. The hang-dog expression is familiar, but there’s humour behind the sadness, despite the often bleak subject matter. And their current UK tour, following up their latest (and Mercury-winning) album The Seldom Seen Kid stopped off at the Roundhouse for three nights in October. Live, Garvey comes into his own. The often-gravelly voice is a note-perfect nucleus to Elbow’s soundscapes, from current favourites Mirrorball, Starlings and Some Riot, to a walk through their back catalogue, revisiting Forget Myself and Leaders of the Free World with tubthumping vigour, and dedicating Newborn (and leading the audience to change ‘corpse’ to ‘duck’) to a pregnant fan sat in the circle. It’s as much between the songs as during them that you realise why Elbow are so loved by fans from first timers to those that have been around since the late 90s, when Asleep At The Back (arguably their best album and a more worthy of the Mercury than their current offering) surfaced.
From quips and question-response banter with the floor, to dry sarcasm, Garvey’s skill is making everyone in the room feel like you’re simply witnessing a jam with him, his mates and a few members of the public down the pub. It’s only at the end of each song that you remember you’re in amongst a couple of thousand people, applauding to the rafters. It’s only the music that snaps you out of it eventually. And, for all their image as quirky and introspective northern charm, their music is towering, simultaneously feeling at home up against any bands of the last ten years and also comfortably away from any other pigeonhole the press would care to invent. It evokes emotion, and the concert feels like much more like a communal moment of happiness as much as it does a band onstage for close to two hours.
And for me, who only came to them when their last album, the Leaders Of The Free World, came out, I scratch my head and wonder why I never cottoned on before. It wasn’t for lack of being prompted. Sometimes though, it’s good to be able to discover so many great records years down the line and make them part of your life. And, like most of Camden that night, wish you could go for a beer with Garvey and Elbow, because, if they’re as thoroughly likeable and entertaining over a beer as they are onstage, it’ll probably be the best night out you’ve had for a while. And to think Johnny Borrell is still getting away with all-white ensembles and tired iggy Pop (in his eyes) pastiches. He could take a few lessons from Elbow, and realise he’ll never get close.